A Bit of Justice for Cousin Charlie

I am not, in general, a big reader of historical fiction. Not anything against it, I think I’d just rather read the history itself. Nonetheless, when Hilary Mantel died last year I thought I probably ought to check out some of her work. A little leery of wading directly into the Thomas Cromwell books I scanned her bibliography and saw a book called The Giant O’Brien. It rang a small bell and, after a bit of poking around, I found it was about, perhaps, a distant relative.

Said giant was Charles Byrne, who measured over seven-and-a-half feet tall. As chronicled in Mantel’s book, he leaves rural Ireland to go to London and become an attraction. What’s really interesting about the man in the book (whether it tracks reality I don’t know) is that he was very much in control of his exploitation. He’s not a simpleton dragged away from home by someone out to make a quick buck. Rather, he’s well aware of what’s going on and happy to make his way in the world in that manner, with the possibility of a young death hovering over him the whole time.

In the book, Byrne is pursued by a surgeon, John Hunter, who is a collector of “specimens” and wants the giant’s skeleton once he’s dead. Byrne makes it perfectly clear that he doesn’t want this to happen, but is betrayed by the hangars-on that have come with him to London, who eventually make the deal with Hunter for a few hundred pounds. The result was that Byrne’s skeleton was put on display at Hunter’s museum, where it became the most famous part of its collection.

There is some dispute as to how, precisely, Byrne’s bones came into Hunter’s possession – let’s hope he wasn’t so cruelly betrayed – but there’s no doubt Byrne didn’t want to go on display like a museum piece. Nonetheless, he was and there he hung for the next two centuries.

Until just recently. The museum is nearing reopening after several years of renovation and have announced that Byrne’s skeleton will no longer be on public display:

“What happened historically and what Hunter did was wrong,” said Dawn Kemp, a director at the Royal College of Surgeons of England, of which the Hunterian Museum is now part. “How do you redress some of these historical wrongs? The first step is to take Byrne’s skeleton off display.”

The real question now is what else, if anything, should be done with it. On the one hand, if we’re rectifying historical wrongs and Byrne wished not to be a specimen that should be the end of the discussion. On the other, there is something to be said for having Byrne’s bones around for scientific study:

“We shouldn’t think that we now know everything,” said Marta Korbonits, a professor of endocrinology at Queen Mary University in London, who has researched Byrne’s genes.

The research “isn’t done and dusted,” she added.

Indeed, Byrne’s skeleton has offered up new answers as medicine has evolved. In 1909, an American surgeon studied Byrne’s remains, and discovered that he had a tumor in his brain. Then, about a century later, researchers including Dr. Korbonits extracted DNA from Byrne’s teeth and found that he also had a rare genetic mutation that had been unknown until 2006.

“Without the public view, we wouldn’t have made that link,” Dr. Korbonits said.

I’ll admit, I’m a little conflicted. On the one hand, since I believe that a body after death is just meat and bone and the person who it once was is gone, I don’t get too worked up over what people do with dead bodies, particularly at the remove of a couple of centuries. And if there is some broader benefit for mankind that’s a good thing, right? On the other, disrespecting a person’s wishes is a shitty thing to do and it seems if you’re going to right that wrong you have to go all the way.

In the end, there’s no good answer, given the proven good that having Byrne’s skeleton around has done, although I could see a compromise – since we’ve gotten more out of him than we ever should have, maybe it’s time to say “thanks” and let the guy rest? It’s the least we can do for cousin Charlie.


The Month of Lists – My 20(ish) Favorite Movies

So, the original plan for the “month of lists” is lying in ruins along the side of the road at this point – given that it’s now June. Perhaps because of that, I’ve decided to cheat a little bit and expand the favorite movie list from the twenty in Steven Wilson’s book to twenty-three. Why? Well, why not? Also, paring this list down proved harder than I’d imagined (if I could get down to only 100 songs, right?) and I didn’t feel like cutting any others. Twenty-three it is. Think of some as bonus tracks, I guess.

As with the favorite songs list, the operative frame for this list is “favorites.” There’s at least one movie on this list that is generally regarded as bad, but I love it anyway and it’s a fav. Likewise, this list omits some really excellent movies that are, nonetheless, so emotionally destructive that I have no desire to see again – things like Requiem for a Dream, Graveyard of the Fireflies, and Hunger. It also omits some really great things that I really like, but nonetheless wouldn’t quite call a “favorite” – like, say, Citizen Cain.

Oh, and spoilers will abound. Most of these movies have been out for years so, really, you’ve got nothing about which to complain.

With that said, away we go . . .

Amadeus (1984)
Directed by Milos Forman
Written by Peter Shaffer

I’m not the biggest fan of Mozart, years of slaving away at his magical clarinet concerto notwithstanding. When it comes to orchestral stuff my preference runs to the later romantic and early modern composers. Which is why a lot of what is in Amadeus – the music, the operas – wouldn’t do much for me if the actual story itself wasn’t so compelling. Yes, I know, it’s not historically accurate (neither is Shakespeare – let it go), but I’m a sucker for a story about rivals involved in a petty dance of destruction (see also, The Prestige, below). That the film is beautiful to look at, centered on a pair of great performances, and a joy to listen to is what probably pushed this to the list ahead of my other Forman favorite, The People Versus Larry Flynt.

Blade Runner (1982)
Directed by Ridley Scott
Written by Hampton Fancher & David Peoples

I was working on (or at least thinking about) this list when the news came down that Vangelis had died. Blade Runner is a triumph of atmosphere, visual and audible, more than anything else. Without Vangelis’ score, a ground-breaking electronic soundscape making full use of the new(ish) Yamaha CS-80 synth, it wouldn’t have worked nearly as well. I mean, yes, the whole concept is interesting and asks questions about what it means to be human and everything, but even if Blade Runner was just the visuals, the music, and Roy Batty’s “tears in the rain” speech it would still make this list.

The Blues Brothers (1980)
Directed by John Landis
Written by Dan Akroyd & John Landis

The blame or praise for this one being on the list lies solely with my older brothers, who introduced me to The Blues Brothers (the band and the movie) at an early, impressionable age. The music is the highlight here, with the band joined by R&B luminaries like Aretha Franklin, John Lee Hooker, and Ray Charles (among others) – hell, Joe Walsh even turns up in the “Jailhouse Rock” scene in the end! And there will never be a more touching and poignant version of “Stand By Your Man” put to film. But the straight comedy bits are mostly gold, too, including the running bit with a murderous Carrie Fisher that only gets explained when it has to. Also, there’s a little car chase that’s kind of fun.

Bob Roberts (1992)
Directed by Tim Robbins
Written by Tim Robbins

Whoo, boy, here’s one that continues to be sadly relevant in the modern world. The titular Bob Roberts is a “conservative folk singer” who made millions with junk bonds, hostile takeovers, and the like and decides to run for the US Senate in Pennsylvania. His opponent is an old-line liberal Democrat (basically a Ted Kennedy stand in) played to smarmy perfection by Gore Vidal (basically playing himself). The movie follows the Roberts campaign (run by Alan Rickman) as scandal swirls around it related to drugs and overseas shenanigans (rooted out by journalist Giancarlo Esposito). The songs are deadpan perfect (one anthem is “The Times Are Changing Back”). But what really sells it these days is the way a near-cult following grows around Roberts (including a young Jack Black) that, when it’s shown in the end that he’s a complete fraud, simply doesn’t care. Prescient, no?

Brazil (1985)
Directed by Terry Gilliam
Written by Terry Gilliam, Tom Stoppard & Charles McKeown

If I was forced to name an absolute favorite movie, this might wind up being it. I love the blending of “reality” and fantasy. I love the dark humor, with several running jokes. I love Robert de Niro almost unrecognizable until he’s swallowed up by a massed ball of waste paper. But I also love the story behind the movie, the battle Gilliam had to fight to get it released the way he wanted it (in the United States, anyway) and the amazingly odd edit the studio chief put together of it. Gilliam said he wanted to make a movie where the happy ending was a man going insane, which the studio cut reduced to a triumphant “love conquers all” ending. Gilliam’s vision is brilliant. The oddball alternate reality version is an fascinating comparison.

Breaker Morant (1980)
Directed by Bruce Beresford
Written by Jonathan Hardy, David Stevens & Bruce Beresford

I saw this for the first time in a military history class in college, which makes sense. It’s a true story from the Second Boer War where a trio of Australian soldiers are put on trial for killing prisoners and deals with the clash between established notions of just war (don’t kill prisoners!) and the evolving nature of war itself (guerilla tactics and how to respond to them). They’re given an inexperienced Australian solicitor to defend them and it’s made clear that they’re to be (in the words of a book the one whose death sentence is commuted) Scapegoats of the Empire. It’s an idea movie, a great lawyer movie, and contains one of the best last lines in all of cinema.

Clerks (1994)
Directed by Kevin Smith
Written by Kevin Smith

Dogma deals with bigger ideas, but dammit, Clerks is just funnier. It’s dumb in a lot of ways and far from a work of distinction when it comes to visuals, but it’s full of individually hilarious scenes and conversations that really probably have no place being in a movie. Yes, the second Death Star discussion (*ahem* see below), but also there is the stuff about position dictating behavior and the contrast between Dante’s life of obligation and Randall’s care-free approach to living (note they both wind up largely in the same place). Plus, this is another one of the those movies with a great story behind it.

Do the Right Thing (1989)
Directed by Spike Lee
Written by Spike Lee

Another movie that’s decades old, yet sadly remains so relevant today. You could easily see the spark that grows into the literal fire at the end of the movie happening today online, with sides quickly drawn over a small, but meaningful, incident that touches on the history of racism in this country. Oh, and don’t forget the horrific act of senseless police violence that ultimate sets off the tinder keg. The cast here is amazing, as is the score, as Lee manages to pull together an ensemble of characters that are each well drawn and compelling in their own right. It’s a joy in a lot of spots, until it hits you in the face.

Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964)
Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Written by Stanley Kubrick, Terry Southern & Peter George

Another for the “still relevant after all these years” file. Strangelove is a master class in making a comedy that is not inherently funny. It works so well because everybody is playing everything perfectly straight (the “you can’t fight in the war room” is not really a punch line), which keeps it both darkly funny and terrifying. There’s an additional gloss to the proceedings these days as General Ripper comes off as the prototypical Q-follower and represents the danger of those folks actually gaining power. Which, in some cases, they have. Where’s my falling bomb and ten-gallon hat?

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
Directed by Irvin Kershner
Written by Leigh Brackett & Lawrence Kasdan

I am of a vintage that the original Star Wars trilogy is the one that means the most for me – I remember seeing Empire in the theater (I think on vacation visiting my aunt in Philly?) and still being slightly terrified by the guys walking up and down the aisles dressed as Darth Vader and a pair of Stormtroopers. Going back to Clerks, Dante is right that Empire is the best of the movies (including the two newer trilogies, which are OK), but not just because of the downer ending (life, Dante says, is a series of down endings). It’s because it’s a brilliant middle part in a trilogy, moving the entire plot along while deepening our understanding of the characters and telling a fairly self-contained story. There’s no wheel spinning here. Plus, the whole Vader-is-Luke’s-dad reveal really worked (in a way it couldn’t today in the age of spoilers).

Fargo (1996)
Directed by Joel Coen
Written by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen

Few movies set outside LA or New York have such a firm sense of place as Fargo. From the frozen wastelands to the urban sprawl to the accents, there’s nothing that’s ever really felt like this movie. It’s a story that drills down on one of the great truths of criminality – crooks are usually undone by their own fuck ups, not necessarily by brilliant police work. It’s worth noting that Marge’s best quality isn’t a particularly keen eye or Sherlock-style deductive logic, but sheer persistence and basic goodness. She has a good bullshit detector, not because she’s super cynical, but because she isn’t. It’s why the creepy stuff with guy from high school is there, to show she still has blind spots. But I’ll give Marge her due – I use “he’s fleeing the interview!” way more often then I should in casual conversation.

A Few Good Men (1992)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Aaron Sorkin

I joked once to my wife that if we’re scrolling through the TV and this is on that I have to stop and watch it or risk being disbarred. It’s not quite like that, but I am pulled into this pretty much any time I see it. Part of it, of course, is that it’s a quintessential lawyer movie, with defense attorney’s striving fully to save their clients’ lives. But part of it is I really fall for Sorkin’s dialog. I know it’s not realistic – people don’t talk that way! – but who cares? I also love the ending, after Nicholson’s epic meltdown, because it’s so true to the life of a defense attorney – yes, you won on the most serious charge, but your guys were still convicted of something and got kicked out of the Marines (which is what they wanted to avoid in the first place). Criminal defense is all about partial victories and learning to revel in them.

Flash Gordon (1980)
Directed by Mike Hodges
Written by Lorenzo Semple, Jr.

I refuse to buy into the concept of “guilty pleasures.” It’s just a way for people to feel good about liking stuff that others don’t, which is bullshit – love what you love when it comes to art. I love Flash Gordon for all the cheese and questionable swashbuckling that runs all the way through it. There are a couple of really good lines in there (“tell me more about this man Houdini” gets me every time) and the whole big finish, with Queen blasting out the soundtrack, is as good as it gets. Special shout out to Max von Sydow, who somehow managed to appear in a lot of movies I love that are, let’s say, not that well received – Victory, Strange Brew, David Lynch’s Dune. I don’t know what that says about him. Or me.

Ikiru (1952)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni

Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors and my first instinct was to go with one of his more typical samurai movies (probably Ran, his visually sumptuous take on King Lear), but this movie kept picking at the back of my brain. There’s no fight scenes, no swordplay, but it’s haunting and beautiful. A meditation on life, death, and legacies, it’s a very humanistic film. The underlying message is that there is only one life we’re given that we can make a difference in peoples’ lives, even if only in small ways. More than that, it’s worth trying to do that.

LA Confidential (1997)
Directed by Curtis Hanson
Written by Brian Helgeland & Curtis Hanson

I’m not generally one to get bogged down in book versus movie comparisons (they’re different art forms with different strengths, weaknesses, and goals), but there’s an interesting detail in the novel LA Confidential that didn’t make it into the film. In the movie we hear that straight arrow cop Edmund Exley is a war hero, but only in the book do we learn that his status is a fraud. Thus, novel Exley comes to the story of LA Confidential – an interwoven tale of murder and utter corruption among the LAPD (based, as they say, on actual events) – with more baggage than his film counterpoint. I’m not sure which works better, though I tend to lean toward the movie, since it makes Exley’s awakening to moral compromise more heartbreaking. Oh, and the more times I watch this, the more I really feel for Russell Crowe’s meathead muscle who wants to be so much more.

Monty Python’s Life of Brian (1979)
Directed by Terry Jones
Written by Graham Champan, John Cleese, Terry Gilliam, Eric Idle, Terry Jones & Michael Palin

Grail is probably funnier, although in a different way, but I think this is a much better movie. It’s less a collection of (albeit hilarious) set pieces and actually does tell a pretty well thought out story. Of course, it’s funny as hell and tears apart various sacred cows, religious and political. All of that’s still relevant, too, from the way people become mindless followers to the splintering of movements over the most minute details to the inertia of inaction. Plus, it ends with a jolly tune!

Matewan (1987)
Directed by John Sayles
Written by John Sayles

It’s a pity that we’ve never gotten a movie about the West Virginia Mine Wars. Given the scale of the thing (the largest armed insurrection since the Civil War, the use of aircraft, etc.) it would make for an obvious movie subject. But if we can’t get that, Sayles’ exploration of the struggles to organize the mines in southern West Virginia at least gives a good sense of what might drive people to take up arms eventually. There are several people in the cast that were Sayles’ regulars who would go on to bigger (though not necessarily better) things, too, which is always fun.

Metropolis (1927)
Directed by Fritz Lang
Written by Thea von Harbou

Pretty much every science fiction movie involving some kind of robot can trace its visual lineage back to this movie. It was so innovative for its time, so unlike anything that had ever been seen, that even if the story portions of the film completely sucked it would be a masterpiece. They don’t, although honestly it’s hard to gauge sometimes given that it’s a silent film with title cards and what not. Given that it’s a silent film, it’s had an interesting afterlife when it comes to soundtracks, most famously a 1984 version produced by Giorgio Morodor with input from (among others), Pat Benatar, Jon Anderson, and Loverboy. Honestly, there’s music out there for just about every taste to go along with this movie.

Murder on a Sunday Morning (2001)
Directed by Jean-Xavier de Lestrade

Public defenders, or anybody who practices criminal defense with regularity, inevitably get the “how do you defend those people?” question, where “those people” are, in the questioner’s mind, criminals. There are many answers to that question, but one of them is that if you don’t do everything you can (within the bounds of the law) in representing every defendant then you’ll be in no position to save a defendant who is actually innocent. This documentary presents one of those cases, as a defense team fights to save a 15-year-old from being convicted of a murder he didn’t commit. Thankfully, they did. This film won an Oscar, but Lestrade went on to even bigger things by essentially giving birth to the modern limited-series true-crime documentary with the (original version of) The Staircase.

The Prestige (2006)
Directed by Christopher Nolan
Written by Christopher Nolan & Jonathan Nolan

As I said earlier, I really dig stories about rivals who go to unhinged ends to one up each other. That’s the driving feature of The Prestige (which is why the book suffers by comparison, as it’s burdened with a needless frame story that distracts from the good stuff), but there’s a good bit of other weirdness going on that creates an interesting atmosphere. Nested timelines can be tricky, but the Nolans pull it off in a way that only deepens the back-and-forth between the two magicians. Plus, it’s got David Bowie as an otherworldly Tesla!

This Is Spinal Tap (1984)
Directed by Rob Reiner
Written by Rob Reiner, Christopher Guest, Michael McKean & Harry Shearer

Yeah, I’m surprised that the only director represented here twice (as a director – sorry, Terry Gilliam) is Rob Reiner. If A Few Good Men is one of my go-to lawyer movies, Spinal Tap is my go to music movie. It’s more of a collection of set pieces than a moving narrative, but almost each of them are hilarious and the music is just good enough to make you bang your head while realizing why Tap wasn’t the hugest band in the universe. It’s easier to show the rapid ascent of success (see below), but the lengthy ride back down is laden with more comic possibilities. That’s how you get to 11.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)
Directed by Atom Egoyan
Written by Atom Egoyan

Fun fact – most lawyers aren’t litigators. I’m not. There are more of us who make our livings representing clients out of court – trial courts, particularly – than in it. This is my favorite movie about being a lawyer, even though there’s no dramatic courtroom climax or wronged client who needs defended. Instead, it’s about the toll it takes on a person’s psyche to make a living by inserting yourself into the tragedies of others. In this case, it’s the aftermath of a school bus crash in a remote Canadian town that killed most of the town’s children. Even if you’re trying to help, nobody is happy to see you and nobody is really happy with the limits of what you can do for them. This is also one of those examples of the movie improving on the book (as author Russell Banks admitted).

That Thing You Do! (1996)
Directed by Tom Hanks
Written by Tom Hanks

Movies about fictional creatives are difficult because it can be really hard to get whatever they create right. Spinal Tap does it with regard to low-brow metal and That Thing You Do! nails it with regard to early 1960s pop. The titular song in this movie brilliantly manages to be catchy enough to believable as a one hit wonder (sorry, Oneder) while not wearing out its welcome since you have to hear it over and over through the movie. The rest of the movie works really well, too, capturing the giddy highs of a completely unexpected rise to the top, without a hugely downer ending when the bottom falls out.

The Month of Lists – My 100 Favorite Songs

To kick off the substantive part of my month of lists, I figured I’d being where Steven Wilson did, with my 100 favorite songs. This was an interesting exercise, as while there are some common artists and even albums between our two lists, there aren’t any common songs. And, of course, my list has a couple of Steven Wilson-related tracks, whereas his list did not (nor did it have any of mine!). Before we dig in, a few ground rules.

First, when I say “favorites” that is just what I mean. Making a list of “best” anythings when it comes to art is a fool’s errand. These are just songs I really like. I make no claim that you will love them, too.

Second, I didn’t select these as particular best examples of what I love about these bands and artists (although many ended up that way). In other words, there was always going to be a Genesis track on here, but I didn’t select it based on how paradigmatic it was of their glory years, just because I really really love it.

Third, I imposed a limit of one song per band/artist on this list. Even with that, my first go had about 200 songs on it. I thought if we’re really talking “favorites” then let’s keep it as just that. That said, some musicians show up multiple times in different bands.

Finally, I made the executive decision to include as one unit multiple songs that segue into one another. If you can listen to them all in a hunk without a break, I counted them as one “song.” Is it cheating? No, because it’s my list and my rules!

So, on with the show. In alphabetical order by song title . . .

“3 Years Older, “ by Steven Wilson from Hand.Cannot.Erase (2015): A perfect blending of Wilson’s prog side and his penchant for memorable pop/rock hooks.

“Almost Medieval,” by The Human League from Reproduction (1979): Rough, early synth pop. All the grit and fuzz of early synths without the slick finish the 1980s would bring. How can you not love a song about a gibbet, anyway?

“Another Murder of the Day,” by Tony Banks (w/Fish) from Still (1991): A sort of “what if?” track, with Fish providing lyrics and vocals. Imagine Calling All Stations with him on board?

“The Ballad of Jenny Ledge,” by Toy Matinee from Toy Matinee (1990): The most fully brilliant result of the brief collaboration between producer extraordinaire Patrick Leonard and the gone-too-soon Kevin Gilbert (another Calling All Stations “what if?”).

“La Ballata de S’lopsoa ‘e Mannorri,” by DFA from 4th (2008): DFA’s muscular Canterbury-influenced prog is taken to another level by the collaboration with a female vocal group on this folk-inspired tune.

“Bass Folk Song,” by Return to Forever from Return to the Seventh Galaxy (1996): Furious bass-led fusion, with lots of juice distorted electric piano to boot.

“Beat Box Guitar,” by Adrian Belew from Side One (2004): An infectious mix of electronics and guitar heroism. Nominated for a Grammy, even!

“Between the Wheels,” by Rush from Grace Under Pressure (1984): An overlooked gem, in my opinion. Love Alex’s solo.

“Bring Out the Sun (So Alive),” by Von Hertzen Brothers from Love Remains the Same (2008): Love the way this one builds to about the halfway point, then shifts gears and does it all again.

“Canto Nomande Per un Prigioniero Politico,” by Banco from Io Sono Il Libero (1973): Banco at their lush, romantic best.

“A Cat With Seven Souls,” by Steve Hogarth & Richard Barbieri from Not the Weapon But the Hand (2012): Love the combination of Barbieri’s gauzy atmospherics and H’s voice.

“Catwalk,” by Oblivion Sun from Oblivion Sun (2007): As an author, how can I not be a huge fan of a song about someone helping out the Cheshire Cat with a story? Oh, and that slinky Minimoog solo, too.

“Celebrity,” by I Am the Manic Whale from Things Unseen (2020): An epic that manages both to make fun of artsy “competition” reality shows, while showing genuine respect for the people who are good enough to do well on them.

“Chat Show,” by Sanguine Hum from Now We Have Light (2015): The central track on a concept album about the buttered cat phenomenon. Top that!

“Cinema Show,” by Genesis from Seconds Out (1977): My favorite performance of my favorite hunk of classic Genesis. They didn’t get better than this.

“The Clever Use of Shadows,” by Nathan Mahl from The Clever Use of Shadows (1999): Deeply cynical lyrics and amazing keyboard parts. What more do you need?

“Close to the Edge,” by Yes from Yessongs (1973): The definitive version of the band’s definitive song (if you ask me). Carries some extra energy from the studio version (although it lacks Bill Bruford).

“Closet Chronicles,” by Kansas from Two for the Show (1978): A great (and sad) story song carried along by some amazing playing. The live version rules.

“Clownhead,” by Dreadnaught from The American Standard (2001): I don’t really know what a “clownhead” is (a descendant of Krusty?) but I love this weird, off-kilter album closer regardless.

“The Crane Wife 1, 2, & 3,” by The Decembrists from We All Raise Our Voices to the Air (2012): Spread across the studio album of the same name, I love hearing it all from stem to stern.

“Day of the Cow 1 > Snowcow > Day of the Cow 2,” by Mike Keneally from Hat (1992): A perfect encapsulation of Keneally – weird, fun, and amazingly musical. Should I mention it’s about a bovine apocalypse?

“De Futura,” by Magma from Udu Wudu (1976): Now this is an apocalypse! The last half is basically the same riff over and over getting just slightly faster until the whole thing feels like it’s going to spin apart (in a good way).

“Deus ex Machina,” by Deus ex Machina from Deus ex Machina (1992): It’s a band name, it’s an album name, it’s a song name! And everything’s in Latin – what’s not to love!

“Dixie Chicken,” by Little Feat from Waiting for Columbus (1978): I love a great story song and they don’t come much better than this. The live version gets the nice Dixieland break from the Tower of Power horns.

“The Dream,” by Robert Cray from Showdown! (1985): Best line in a blue song ever: “When I reached out to hold her / Oh, I woke my wife instead!”

“Driving to Amsterdam,” by Khan from Space Shanty (1972): Loosy, jammy goodness. If this is what a “Nederlander dream” sounds like, I’m on board.

“Les etudes d’organism,” by Thinking Plague from In Extremis (1998): 14 minutes of pure weirdness, punctuated with ambient and symphonic beauty. Dark beauty, but still.

“Even Less,”  by Porcupine Tree from Recordings (2001): This is the full version, not the first half as it appeared on Stupid Dream. I like the dreamy interlude in the middle and the recapitulation in the end.

“Felona > Le solitudine di chi protegge il mondo > L’iquillibiro,” by Le Orme from Felona y Sorona (1973): Light, graceful Italian goodness. An alt-universe ELP that admired Renaissance instead of Hendrix.

“Fitter Stoke Has a Bath,” by Hatfield and the North from Rotter’s Club (1975): I’m also a sucker for songs about musicians, particularly ones like this, that try to rub some of the glamour off their image.

“Free Will and Testament,” by Robert Wyatt from Shleep (1997): “What kind of spider understand arachnophobia?” I dunno, Robert, but it’s worth pondering.

“Games Without Frontiers,”  by Peter Gabriel from Peter Gabriel (Melt) (1980): When I was young I thought the French refrain was “she’s so funky.” That kind of works, anyway, you know?

“Go!,” by Public Service Broadcasting from The Race for Space (2015): Not the “best” song from this album (I’d go with “Sputnik”), but this one makes me giddy every time. The newsreel clips are spliced up here expertly.

“The Gooberville Ballroom Dancer,” by Beardfish from The Sane Day (2005): “He was a filthy motherfucker by the name of Dwight” – hell of a first line, particularly when it’s your opening tune at your first American prog festival!

“Head Over Heels > Broken,” by Tears for Fears from Songs from the Big Chair (1985): It says something when the third (or fourth?) hit from an album is this good.

“Hell’s Kitchen> Lines in the Sand,” by Dream Theater from Falling Into Infinity (1997): I know this isn’t Dream Theater’s most loved album (and rightly so), but these two tracks work really well together, the jammy instrumental turning into a solid tune, with a great chord progression in the chorus (and King’s X’s Doug Pinnick!).

“Hereafter,” by The Dregs from Bring ‘em Back Alive (1992): Not that the Dregs didn’t frequently blaze, but I really love this laidback jam.

“Hibou, Anemone and Bear,” by Soft Machine from Volume 2 (1969): Fuzzed bass, many woodwind overdubs, and lyrical silliness. My preferred variant of Soft Machine.

“Hostsejd,” by Anglagard from Epilog (1994): My first exposure to the amazing retro-symph prog from Sweden that helped kick off prog’s third wave.

“I Dream of Wires,” by Gary Numan from Telekon (1980): It took me many listens before I realized that this song is about an electrician worried about remaining employed in a wired world. I always figured it was about synth patch chords.

“Idioteque,” by Radiohead from Kid A (2000): Speaking of synth patch chords. Officially the weirdest thing I’ve ever seen performed on Saturday Night Live.

“Impressioni di settembre,” by PFM from Storia di un Minuto (1972): My first impression (so to speak) of Italian prog. That Minimoog solo!

“In Earnest,” by The Tangent from A Place In the Queue (2006): My favorite epic of the modern prog era. The last verse chokes me up still.

“In Every Dream Home a Heartache,” by Roxy Music from For Your Pleasure (1973): Roxy’s not really my thing, but this mix of weirdo confession that explodes into rock and roll goodness is great.

“In the Dead of Night > By the Light of Day > Presto Vivace & Reprise,” by UK from UK (1978): Prog’s last gasp in the 1970s, really – but what a gasp.

“Intentions Clear,” by Umphrey’s McGee from The Bottom Half (2007): For an odds and sods collection, this is a pretty good album. I prefer this version to the “real” one on Safety In Numbers.

“Internal Exile,” by Fish from Internal Exile (1991): Fish’s love song to his native Scotland, in which I hear lots of echoes of West Virginia (in the bridge, particularly).

“The Invisible Man,” by Marillion from Marbles (2004): This is what modern Marillion is all about – layers of sound for days, atmosphere all about, with H’s emotive vocal on the top.

“Invisible Sun,” by The Police from Ghost in the Machine (1981): Favorite song by The Police. Simple as that.

“Judas Unrepentant,” by Big Big Train from English Electric, Vol. 1 (2012): I’ve written about this song before. I love me songs about interesting criminals.

“King of Number 33,” by DeExpus from King of Number 33 (2011): Another song about an interesting criminal, but this time one who is completely out of his mind. Delusion and nifty solos across 25 or so minutes.

“Lady Fantasy,” by Camel from Mirage (1974): The instrumental workout in the last half of this it just peak Camel. They did not better, IMHO.

“Le Fantome de M.C. Escher,” by Miridor from Mekano! (2001): If there’s such a thing as “fun” avant garde prog, Miriodor is it. That said, the way this ends in an unholy mishmash of noise kind of makes you wonder.

“Liberty City,” by Jaco Pastorious from The Birthday Concert (1995): Jaco with a big band in full song filling his sails.

“Life During Wartime,” by Talking Heads from Stop Making Sense (1984): Rampant paranoia with a driving beat.

“Lochs of Dread,” by Bela Fleck & the Flecktones from Live Art (1996): A banjo player grooving on a reggae riff, held down by his synth-drum drummer and a guest on bass clarinet. If that doesn’t define all that’s great about Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, I don’t know what does (great title, too).

“Man-Erg,” by Van der Graff Generator from Pawn Hearts (1971): Musically and lyrically the best VdGG ever did. Hopeful and frightening in equal measure.

“Memetic Pandemic,” by 3rDegree from The Long Division (2012): The highlight of 3rDegree’s political opus.

“Microdeath Softstar,” by Phideaux from Doomsday Afternoon (2007): In some ways it’s a theme song for the modern age (written 15 years ago).

“Moonwalk,” by Moon Safari from The Gettysburg Address (2012): The first song of the first set released where I was in the room when it was recorded. Good tune, too.

“Neon Lights,” by Kraftwerk from The Man-Machine (1977):  Kraftwerk’s “Cinema Show,” if you will – starts off with a pleasant enough song section, before transitioning into an extended instrumental coda.

“New Holy Ground,” by Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark from History of Modern (2010): Few bands get back together decades later and produce new stuff worth listening to. They’ve done it a lot.

“No Sign of Yesterday,” by Men at Work from Cargo (1983): It’s like melancholy set music. With a nifty guitar solo in the end.

“No Thugs In Our House,” by XTC from English Settlement (1982): I had a conversation once with a client’s mother. She had no idea why her son was spending years in a federal prison. This song makes me think of her.

“On Reflection,” by Gentle Giant from Playing the Fool (1977): I chose the live version of this song because they take apart the original, rearrange it, and make the end product even more jaw-droppingly impressive to perform it live.

“One of Our Submarines,” by Thomas Dolby (1982): Inspired by a true family story (as I understand it). Better than anything that was actually on The Golden Age of Wireless (which is excellent).

“Out In the Darkness,” by Martin Orford (w/Steve Thorne) from The Old Road (2008): Atheists need anthems, too. Particularly in times like these.

“Oxygene, pt. 2,” by Jean-Michel Jarre from Oxygene (1976): Where things really get moving in this electronic classic.

“Poisoned Youth,” by England from Garden Shed (1977): England were not particularly original in the context of 1970s prog, but they put all the pieces together in a pretty satisfying way in this epic.

“Present from Nancy,” by Supersister from Present from Nancy (1970): Canterbury wasn’t just an English thing, as these Dutch boys prove. With a dash of Zappa here and there.

“Racing In A,” by Steve Hackett from Please Don’t Touch (1978): One of my earliest favorites (thanks to my brother), which breaks off from a full-throated song into a solo nylon-string guitar outro.

Recycled Side 1 by Nektar from Recycled (1975): Okay, this really is cheating, but these seven songs all run together, honest (as do the four on side two). Larry Fast’s synth programming really elevated these guys.

“Remurdered,” by Mogwai from Rave Tapes (2014): Love Mogwai in general, but really love it when they dig into the electronic sounds, as in here.

“S.A.L.T.,” by The Orb from Orblivion (1997): The unhinged preaching film clips (from the Mike Leigh movie Naked) are almost enough to put this on the list, but the way the beats and soundscapes get deeper and more paranoid as the go along really sells it. “Do you ever get a feeling your being followed?”

“Safe In Hell,” by The Bears from Car Caught Fire (2001): Leave it to Adrian Belew and crew to take an alternative look at half of the afterlife.

“Seven Is a Jolly Good Time,” by Egg (1969): If prog had a theme song, how could it not be this single (which sank without a trace upon release) that extols the joys of playing in odd time signatures? Still stunned no band has whipped this out at a prog festival.

“The Seventh House,” by IQ from The Seventh House (2000): A perfect epic of World War I loss and remembrance. Still don’t quite know what the “seventh house” is, though.

“Sheep,”  by Pink Floyd from Animals (1977): It’s all about that chord progression from Gilmour in the end. And the tinkly electric piano from Wright in the beginning.

“Solar Musick Suite,” by Steve Hillage from Fish Rising (1975): Hillage’s stuff seems to uncoil like a snake, solid but ever shifting.

“Some Memorial,” by echolyn from echolyn (Window) (2012): It starts sort of wistful and cynical, but builds into a climax with some of my favorite lyrics about the end of things.

“Soterargarten 1,” by Gosta Berlngs Saga from Glue Works (2011): Uses repetition to great effect, building up to the amazing ending.

“Squarer for Maud,” by National Health from Of Queues and Cures (1978): Maybe my favorite bit of Canterbury ever. Another song that goes one direction, breaks for something completely different (spoken word interlude!), then gets to business.

“St. Elmo’s Fire,” by Brian Eno from Another Green World (1975): A very good lush pop tune becomes great with Eno’s decision to let Robert Fripp rip right through it from time to time.

“Stander on the Mountain,” by Bruce Hornsby from Here Come the Noisemakers (2000): The older I get, the more this story of faded glories and the people who can’t let them go sticks with me.

“Starless,” by King Crimson from Red (1974): Another one (like “Cinema Show” and “Neon Lights”) that starts as a “song” proper and then slides into a feverish instrumental final. How long does Fripp play that one note?

“Surrender,” by Cheap Trick from At Buddokan (1979): High point of the best side of pure rock and roll ever recorded? I’d say yes.

“Telephasic Workshop,” by Boards of Canada from Music Has a Right to Children (1998): Trip hop and burbly synths. I love that I can listen to this and not have the first idea of how it’s really made.

“The Doorway,” by Spock’s Beard from Beware of Darkness (1996): I love those first five Beard albums (I got in on the ground floor, sort of) and this exemplifies why.

“There’s Something On Your Mind,” by BB King (w/Etta James) from Blues Summit (1993): Great duet by two giants who are no longer with us, sold with all their heart and soul.

“Thick as a Brick,” by Jethro Tull from Thick as a Brick (1972): Technically an entire album, I guess? It’s just one long song broken across two LP sides. Would have to make it for the fake newspaper artwork, regardless.

“Toujours plus à l’est,” by Univers Zero from Live (2006): What did I say earlier about “fun” avant garde stuff? UZ has done much denser and darker stuff, but I love this spritely little thing. Dig the clarinet!

“Trilogy,” by Emerson, Lake & Palmer from Trilogy (1972): My favorite synthesis of ELP’s push/pull struggle between Greg Lake’s romantic balladry and Keith Emerson’s keyboard pyrotechnics.

“Vertiges,” by Present from Barbarro (ma non troppo) (2009): This makes the list for the thundering piano runs up and down the keyboard.

“Village of the Sun > Echidna’s Arf (of You) > Don’t You Ever Wash That Thing?,” by Zappa from Roxy & Elsewhere (1974): Everything I love about Zappa – a silly song (although not as silly as usual) followed by mind-blowing musical workouts. It’s a whole side, yes, but it goes by in a flash.

“Warriors,” by Synergy from Electronic Realizations for Rock Orchestra (1975): Probably my favorite “composed” bit of electronica. I could see this transcribe for a human ensemble very easily. All done with a single Minimoog and a Mellotron.

“Whalehead,” by Moth Vellum from Moth Vellum (2007): This album has grown and grown in esteem for me over the years.

“What Looks Good On the Outside,” by Animal Logic from Animal Logic II (1991): It’s not necessarily what you’d expect from the rhythm section of The Police & Return to Forever, but it’s some seriously good grown-up pop.

“With a Car Like That You Must Be Knee Deep In Whores,” by Forever Einstein from Down With Gravity (2000): It’s here for the title, yes, although it’s a groovy little tune. Don’t worry, it’s instrumental!

“World Through My Eyes,” by RPWL from World Through My Eyes (2005): This makes the list mostly for the awesome synth solo that resolves into the guitar solo near the end. Sublime stuff.

“Yellow Submarine,” by The Beatles from Revolver (1966): I probably loved this movie before I really digested The Beatles’ music. Good way to wrap things up.

Here are some fun facts about this list.

  • The list covers 54 years, from 1966 (The Beatles) to 2020 (I am the Manic Whale)
  • Decade breakdown: 1960s (3) – 1970s (33) – 1980s (10) – 1990s (19) – 2000s (22) – 2010s (13) – 2020s (1)
  • There’s a cluster of great live albums there from 1977 to 1979
  • The musician most represented on the list (I think) is keyboard maestro Dave Stewart, who was a key member of Egg, Hatfield and the North, and National Health, as well as playing with Steve Hillage in Kahn and on his first solo record
  • My absolute top favorite? Not going to say! It’s been hard enough to whittle things down to 100!

Next week, let’s talk movies.

“At Such Speeds, Things Fly”

Beginning in 1955, Donald Campbell piloted Bluebird K7, the world’s first functional jet-powered hydroplane, to a slew of water speed records. He didn’t just break the record, he shattered it over and over again – the record he initially broke was 178 miles per hour, while his last complete run, nine years later, was over 276 miles per hour.

On January 4, 1967, Campbell took Bluebird  to Coniston Water in England’s Lake District for another run, hoping to hit 300 miles per hour. After making the run one direction at over 297 miles per hour, Campbell began the return run. Then, tragedy struck:

It was big news in the UK, big enough that young Steve Hogarth, while not quite grasping what had happened, noted the emotional impact Campbell’s death had on his mother. Flash forward three decades and Hogarth, aka “H,” and his band Marillion release Afraid of Sunlight, my personal favorite album of theirs. One track, “Out of this World,” is about Campbell and his fatal voyage, complete with some snippets of radio traffic from that day.

So far not that interesting, right? A band writing a song about a tragic historical event is hardly rare (Marillion themselves have jokingly been referred to as a band specializing in songs about “death and water”). What’s really cool is what happened afterward. Bill Smith was not just a Marillion fan (he even sort of promoted a solo Fish show in Newcastle!), but an experienced salvage diver. Inspired by the song, he led a team that found Bluebird and raised it from the depths. The official photographer for the event? Steve Rothery, Marillion guitarist. You can hear more about that day on the latest episode of Hogarth’s podcast, The Corona Diaries, which includes an interview with Smith.

Again, that would be an interesting enough story, but it goes even further. Smith and his team restored Bluebird and, in 2018, it was in the water again, on Loch Fad in Scotland, where it hit 150 miles per hour.

Sadly, that wasn’t the end of things. There appears to be an ongoing legal dispute over where Bluebird should make its final landing. According to the BBC, the Campbell family promised Bluebird to a local Coniston museum (that has built a wing specifically to house the restored craft). Smith, however, argues that because some of the restored craft is made up of new parts, he “co-owns the craft.” Interestingly, in the podcast, Smith points out that the usual finders-keepers salvage law of the open ocean doesn’t apply to inland waterways.

I suppose it’s inevitable that when someone’s legacy is at stake the parties involved wind up at odds. I don’t think it’s a matter of money more than it is pride and obligation. I hope there’s a happy ending in there somewhere, a resolution that can please all the parties involved, if not completely.

All in all, there’s probably at least another song in all this.

“Louie, Louie” and the Wages of Satan

When I went to college most of the music I had was on cassettes recorded from the record collections of my brothers. As a result, I didn’t have the liner notes that came with those albums and, thus, no lyrics to pore over. This wasn’t a huge problem, but I did always wonder what Jon Anderson was singing about on old Yes albums.

I got online during my junior year of college and quickly discovered primitive websites devoted to bands I loved. Some of them even had song lyrics on them! So I dutifully dove into some of those old Yes albums and . . . didn’t really get any better understanding of the lyrics. Turns out Anderson was more focused on what words sounded like rather than meaning, so they were pretty vague on purpose – what on Earth (or beyond) is “cold summer listening” and how does “hot color melt the anger to stone,” anyway?

Still and all, Anderson never wound up in the crosshairs of J. Edgar Hoover. And he never inspired , one of my favorite Bloom County strips of all time:

The joke works, of course, because nobody really knows what the words to “Louie, Louie,” are, which is pretty amazing given how much the song has seeped into our culture. How exactly did that happen? Turns out, it’s precisely because purveyors of moral panic can try to make the lyrics be any old thing they wanted.

This article in Reason tells the tale. The song was written in 1956, but didn’t really breakthrough until it was recorded by the Kingsmen in 1963 (it peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard chart) and even then it took a while to get rolling. As the article points out, it’s not a particularly deep song:

It was nothing more than a lovesick sailor’s lament to a bartender about wanting to get back home to his girl. But because Jack Ely, the Kingsmen’s lead singer, slurred the words beyond recognition, it became something of a Rorschach test for dirty minds. Schoolyard rumors about filthy lyrics in “Louie, Louie” stoked parental fears, prompted fevered complaints, and ultimately triggered a prolonged nationwide investigation.

My favorite overreaction to this comes from the governor of Indiana who “claimed that the record was so obscene it made his ‘ears tingle’” and used his connections with radio stations to effectively ban the song in that state. That’s peanuts to the multi-year investigation that the United States government launched into the song, via the FBI and the fellas at the freakin’ FCC, among others. Even with all that time and all those resources involved, investigators couldn’t figure out what the Kingsmen were on about!

My other favorite detail is this – it took the crack investigators at the FBI 18 months to think to go look up the actual lyrics on file with the U.S. Copyright Office! Mystery solved, at least, right? Not really. There were “other versions” of the lyrics circulating in schoolyards and such, which seems to say less about “Louie, Louie” than it does about the hyper sexed minds of young adults everywhere.

There’s lots of other interesting stuff in the article, so I recommend the full read. I will go ahead and spoil the ending, though – “Louie, Louie” won, in the end, becoming its own kind of classic. Did you know that April 11 is International “Louie, Louie” Day? Now you do, just in time to celebrate and tell the censorious prudes to go fuck themselves.

The Gagarin Nonsense

A couple of weeks ago I talked a little bit about how, in reaction to the Russian invasion of Ukraine, people and businesses had been cutting ties with all things Russian. Some of these make sense, as a way to starve the Russian economy and isolate/shame people with close ties to Putin, but some of them are pretty stupid, like pouring out (presumably quality) Russian vodka that you’ve already paid for. That’s a fairly pointless gesture, after all.

Which brings us to the weirdness revolving around Yuri Gagarin. Gagarin, of course, was the first human in space, an icon of the Space Race . . . and died in 1968. Putin was a teenager when Gagarin died, so it’s fairly safe to say he had nothing to do with the decision to invade Ukraine.

So imagine my surprise when I saw on Twitter over the weekend that Gagarin was being cancelled. Actually, what Tweet after Tweet said was that he had been “stripped of his honours” – complete with British spelling:

Where was this coming from? Even during the height of the Cold War I don’t remember Gagarin being treated as anything other than a pioneer. What would lead to his cancellation due to a war that started four and a half decades after he died? Turns out it’s slightly more complicated, at least in terms of the reach.

As it happens, there is a thing called the Space Foundation, which, according to Wikipedia, “is an American nonprofit organization that advocates for all sectors of the global space industry through space awareness activities, educational programs, and major industry events. It was founded in 1983.” At the beginning of April they’re having a Space Symposium (apparently a yearly event) that, according to Futurism, was supposed to have a night or panel called “Yuri’s Night.” Now, per a now deleted Tweet (cowards) it’s been renamed “A Celebration of Space: What’s Next.”

He’s a description of the event, from the Space Foundation website:

So it’s a schmoozy meet and greet cocktail party thing and, to me, sounds like it’s primarily geared toward fund raising. As explained in the Futurism story:

The nonprofit Space Foundation announced  in a now-deleted note that ‘in light of current world events’ it would be changing the name of a fundraiser from ‘Yuri’s Night” to ‘A Celebration of Space: Discover What’s Next’ at its Space Symposium conference.

‘The focus of this fundraising event remains the same — to celebrate human achievements in space while inspiring the next generation to reach for the stars,’ the deleted update notes.

I agree with the author of the Futurism piece that this is a “rather dubious show of solidarity with the Ukrainian people” and is ultimately a dumb move, but I can see how it happened. In an environment when every corporate entity has to take a stand on current events, you’re going to have places that decide to avoid any hint of controversy as much as possible (and trigger the inevitable backlash).

But let’s keep in mind what this is not – there is no cancelling of Gagarin going on here. He’s not being erased from history books. There are no “honours” the Space Foundation has bestowed upon him that they could now revoke. How could they? Gagarin will always be the first person in place.

My point here is not that the Space Foundation was the right one. I think it’s pretty stupid, but I think equally stupid, or maybe even more so, is the reaction to it which is fairly divorced from the initial decision. It feels to me like it’s one of those minor stupidities that blows up over social media based on details that aren’t accurate. Dealing with the fallout from the Russian invasion is hard enough without reacting to stuff that didn’t actually happen.

Will the Other Shoe Drop?

When Russia invaded Ukraine a few weeks ago, the world responded pretty quickly to isolate Russia and exclude Russians around the world from various things. A major Russian conductor was dropped for concerts at Carnegie Hall because of his close ties to Putin and unwillingness to criticize the invasion (a similar result came with an famed opera singer a little while later). Bars stopped serving Russian vodka. Hell, even rapacious companies like BP decided that being in business with Russia was a no-go.

Soccer was one of the first parts of the sporting world to respond. UEFA, the European federation, announced that it was moving the Champions League final, the capstone of its most important club competition, from St. Petersburg to Paris. In the wake of that, several countries – notably Poland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic – announced they would not play Russia under any condition. That was important, as they were all involved with Russia in the same playoff round of World Cup qualifying and so were, potentially, forfeiting a chance to make this year’s World Cup Finals (other federations with less skin in the game, including the US Soccer Federation, made similar statements). Eventually, FIFA stepped in and banned Russia from further competition, leaving the Swedes, Poles, and Czechs to fight it out for World Cup berth with clean hands.

Sort of.

It was a shock, to say the least, when Qatar beat out Australia, Japan and others to win the right to host the 2022 World Cup (in the same process that awarded the 2018 World Cup to . . . Russia). The Qatari heat would require the tournament to take place in November and December, rather than in the middle of the summer. Beyond that, of course, Qatar is not a democracy and has a shady human rights record.

But specifically, the numerous new stadiums the nation needed to build for the World Cup, are killing workers at an alarming rate, up to 6500 migrant workers from India, Pakistan, and surrounding areas alone. A minimum wage for those workers only came into effect in 2021. A good idea of what laboring to build the stadiums is like can be found here. So not only are there ethical questions about the host nation for the World Cup in general, but specifically linked to the competition itself.

So what should the countries that have qualified do about it? The invasion of a sovereign nation by a neighbor, in a way that wrecks the equilibrium of modern Europe, may be sui generis. After all, the nations who initially stepped up to say that wouldn’t play Russia could find themselves in Putin’s crosshairs sooner rather than later. Lots of the other countries, including the United States, are doing everything they can to stop the war without it blowing up into World War III.

What’s gone on in Qatar isn’t that, but it isn’t good. More and more, repressive regimes are using sports to try and launder their reputations. Called “sportswashing,” it’s probably a driving force behind the fact that there are now things like a Formula 1 race in Saudi Arabia and the recent Winter Olympics (and current Paralympics) in China. Letting Qatar host the World Cup is more of the same.

But it’s very likely that they are going to host, so what to do about it? Is the reaction of the sporting world to Russia’s aggression the beginning of a new era in sports activism? Or is it so beyond the pale of the modern world that it won’t impact anything else? I wish I knew, because I struggle with what to do about the World Cup, too. I watched almost every game of the 2018 version in Russia and the Americans didn’t even qualify. If we make it this time? You bet I’ll be paying attention, but won’t feel good about it.

Let me address the elephant in the room – if global sports is going to develop a conscience about things like human rights and violating international law, won’t that standard mean excluding the United States from certain things? Maybe. People asking “what about Iraq?” have a very good point. There are differences between the two situations, but I’m not sure they make a difference. Nor is invading Iraq without cause our country’s only sin when it comes to international relations. If that means we get punished for it, I’m not sure that’s a bad thing.

For most of us, sports are a distraction, a fun way to spend free time and we try to keep that frame even when we’re engaging with multi-billion dollar competitions that span the globe. We want them to an escape from the regular world, from the conflicts that rage in “real” life. But they’re part of our world, in all its pain and joy, and that means inextricably entwined with world affairs.

In Praise of Gregg Berhalter

When Gregg Berhalter was announced as the head coach of the US Men’s National Team in 2018 that decision was not greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. Gregg’s managerial career consisted of a couple of non-descript years in Sweden followed by a solid run in charge of the Columbus Crew, losing MLS Cup in 2015 (at home) to the Portland Timbers. There were other big, international names that were allegedly in the mix, so this pick seemed underwhelming. It didn’t help that Gregg’s brother Jay was one of the higher ups in US Soccer at the time, leading to lazy charges of nepotism in Gregg’s hire. That Gregg had appeared 44 times for the USMT as a player, but never made the field during the World Cup where he was on the roster kind of said it all.

Gregg’s hire came in the shadow of the USMNT failing to qualify for the 2018 World Cup. His ultimate success will be judged solely on whether we qualify for the 2022 tournament in Qatar and, if we do, how well we do there. Up to this summer there hadn’t been a lot of meaningful games for Gregg to show fans what he can do at the helm. But, oh boy, has he had a very good summer.

Like everything else, the pandemic wreaked havoc with the international soccer calendar. League seasons that were suspended in early 2020 finished up later than usual that year, leading to the cancellation of major 2020 national competitions and the late start of the next club season. That season then got compressed so the delayed summer competitions could happen. So this summer has been packed solid with the Copa America and European Championships taking place on a year delay, not to mention the Olympics. And then there’s World Cup qualifying, which gets underway in September and will include schedules with three games played in two weeks (usually it’s only two).

For CONCACAF, the regional federation to which the United States and the rest of North and Central American and the Caribbean belong, its championship, the Gold Cup, was already scheduled for 2021. But the inaugural finals of the Nations League, a new tournament meant to fill in the gaps between World Cups and Gold Cups, was supposed to have taken place in 2020, but got pushed back. So, for Gregg and the USMNT this summer meant two games in the Nations League final, the Gold Cup, and then the start of World Cup qualifying, all with players who have been at it pretty much nonstop for the past year or so. Oh, and CONCACAF moved the Gold Cup back a month so as to not compete with Copa America and the Euros, pushing it into the preseason for a lot of European clubs.

Thankfully, Gregg had a plan. Step 1 – take the best team possible into the Nations League finals with the intent of winning a trophy. This would bet the core players, most of whom play in Europe. It would be the first meaningful chance to see them play together, in anticipation of a meeting with full-strength Mexico in the final. Step 2 – take a younger, mostly MLS-based team into the Gold Cup, with the intent of discovering roster depth that will help us when World Cup qualification begins, while giving the first-team guys some rest and letting them start preseason work with their club teams. Go as far as you can in the tournament, but don’t expect to win it, especially if we came up against Mexico, again. Step 3 – start World Cup qualifying with the strongest team possible and, hopefully, some momentum.

Well, as for Step 1 – this happened:

After a less than impressive semifinal win against Honduras, the US beat Mexico 3-2 in extra time to lift the first Nations League trophy. It didn’t go completely to plan – injuries kept the preferred Best 11 from playing together much – but you can’t argue with the results. Off to some vacation for most of those guys, on to the Gold Cup.

The Gold Cup was never going to be beautiful. The only real holdover from the Nations League roster was midfielder Kelly Acosta. More than a dozen players had appeared less than ten times for the USMNT. The guys called in from Europe were basically trying to make moves to new clubs. How much talent did this group have?

Enough to blow through the group stage, at least. By which I mean we won all three games, even if two of them were a lot closer than you’d like them to be. Rosters were rotated, players were given chances to sink or swim. Nothing convincing but, again, the results were coming. We were probably outplayed for large parts of the quarterfinal against Jamaica and the semi against Qatar (here as guests and reigning champions of Asia), but the result in the end was the same: 1-0 to the US.

But remember, the goal here isn’t necessarily to win, but to learn. What did we learn in all those games? That New England goalkeeper Matt Turner should be in the running for the top job when qualifying starts. That defender Miles Robinson and midfielder/defender James Sands are both worthy of the qualifying roster. The defensive depth we were worried about is here and it’s pretty good. The attack not so much (Matthew Hoppe’s enthusiasm aside), but we’re top heavy with attacking talent with the first-choice team. We’ve also learned that Gregg can make great use of substitutes – keeping in mind that FIFA is keeping 5 substitutes (as opposed the usual three) until at least the next World Cup is over.

But we want to win this thing, right? Over Mexico for the second time this summer? You’re damned right we did:

It should be noted that, due to injuries and Olympic duty, Mexico was missing a few first-teamers, but they had a lot more of their “A” team on the field in the Gold Cup final than we did. We won anyway. Was is pretty? No. Was is great fun to watch? Absolutely.

I’d like to say I was a Gregg booster from the beginning, but that would be a lie. I wasn’t as down on him as some other folks, but I wasn’t thrilled. As we waded through lots of friendlies with questionable roster selections and what not I wondered if he was up to it. Now I’m ready to buy in completely. Gregg might not do it the way I want him to, but his job is to get us back to the World Cup and regain are spot on top of CONCACAF.

We’re halfway there!

One Album to Rule Them All!

At my dayjob office there’s a whiteboard and bulletin board back near the break room. After a few years, one of our administrative folks has found its best use – asking questions of the staff about the important questions in life. Things like “what’s your favorite ice cream flavor?” or “if you could wake up one morning an expert in anything, what would it be?” Now, she’s come up with a question that, as she correctly warned me, is a real stumper:

If you could only listen to one album for the next year, what would it be?

Between my musical geekiness and my penchant for over thinking things, my mind’s been working overtime since the question came up. I think I’ve come up with a decent answer – here’s how I got to it.

It quickly occurred to me that there are two questions you have to ask before you start evaluating answers for a question like this. It has to do with getting the most out of whatever you select.

The first is, do you go for something that’s a stone cold favorite or something more mysterious? The case for the favorite is obvious – you want to listen to something you like, if it’s all you’ve got for a year. But there’s also a risk – would listening to any favorite album for a year cause you to sour on it? Get so sick of it you’d never want to hear it again? Something less familiar, or more dense, might be more rewarding over multiple listens.

I didn’t let this issue detain me very much. While I toyed with the idea of choosing something like Brian Eno’s Music for Airports (Ambient 1), as its details would surely be sharpened by lots of repeated listening, ultimately I decided that if I have to listen to only one thing for a year, I want it to be something I really love. A lot of my favorite albums I’ve known for years, if not decades, and I’m not yet tired of them. It’s a risk I’m willing to take.

The second, and more difficult question, is one of quality versus quantity. Favorite albums might not be very long, might not provide the best bang for your buck, so to speak. But longer ones might not be as good. The best example of this in my collection, probably, comes from Zappa. My favorite Zappa album is probably Roxy & Elsewhere. While originally a 2-LP release, we’re talking about Frank’s 1970s stuff, so the sides are short and it sits comfortably on a single CD. Läther, on the other hand, is a 3-CD release of what was originally intended to be an 8-sided album. It’s crammed full of music, full of variety and skill, even if it’s not my favorite. Which to pick?

In the end, I decided to go with the “more is more” philosophy, at least to an extent. It was made easier by the fact that bands in the 1970s would produce fairly short (by standards of the CD era I grew up in, at least) studio albums, and then release multi-disc live albums. Those albums often cover a lot of ground and sometimes do it with versions that improve on the original studio recordings. With that in mind, it came down to two choices.

The first was Yessongs, the first live Yes album.

This is one of those “if you only own one album by a band, buy this one” kind of albums. Originally three LPs (it fits on two CDs) and recorded after Close to the Edge, it really captures the band at its prime. It includes all three songs from that album, as well as most everything important from Fragile and The Yes Album. More than that, lots of the live versions of those songs are bangers. What’s not to love? Well, a couple of things. First, it doesn’t touch at all on either of the band’s first two albums, which have some gems. Second, the main thing missing from Fragile is “South Side of the Sky,” which is my favorite track on that album. Finally, there’s a lack of Bill Bruford on this release. Drummer Bruford left Yes after Close to the Edge to join King Crimson and he’s only on a couple of tracks. His replacement, Alan White, took over the drum stool for good (having worked with some nobody named John Lennon previously), which is saying something for a band whose membership rivals Spinal Tap (or King Crimson!) for turnover. He’s a great player, but I like Bill better and these are “his” tunes.

The other contender was another live album (originally a double LP, still a double CD), Seconds Out by Genesis.

As you might expect from the title, this is the second live album from Genesis and is the swan song of the prog era. Peter Gabriel was already gone and Steve Hackett was on his way out the door and the band was about to reshuffle into the pop/prog trio that conquered the world in the 1980s and 1990s. It focuses on the albums released since Live, but that’s still prime real estate – Selling England by the Pound, The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway, A Trick of the Tail, and Wind and Wuthering. It also dips into the further past for the main oversight of Live – the side-long epic “Supper’s Ready.” That starts off disc two with a bang that never lets up – side four of the original LP release contains the definitive versions of “Cinema Show” and “Dance on a Volcano/Los Endos.” That whole disc is one of my very favorites. Down sides? Well, there’s only one track from Wind and Wuthering, which is odd since it was the newest album at the time. And, although it’s apocryphal to say that Hackett was “mixed out” since he was leaving the band, it’s not the strongest of his albums with the band.

In the end, there was only one solid choice – Seconds Out. Much as I love Yes, Genesis may be my all time favorite band (certainly during the Gabriel/Hackett years) and if I could only listen to one thing for a year, wouldn’t that be it?

Some New Music: In the Year of the Plague

I will not lie – there’s been one thing I’ve really enjoyed about the past year of pandemic fucked life. I’m lucky in that I’ve been able to keep working from home during the whole thing without any real impact on my daily work. One side effect of that is that without commuting time on workdays, I had a lot more time on my hands.

What a boon that must have been for creativity! So much more time to write!

Yeah, well, about that. Whether it was the constant creeping doom around the world or just the fact that Widows of the Empire and Heroes of the Empire are being difficult, I didn’t turn all that extra time into a new books. Not yet, at least.

What I did do was make some music.

And here it is. All of these songs were started or finished (in most cases both) during 2020. Not many are actually pandemic related, but just being able to use the extra time to quickly follow up on ideas and moods definitely played a role. With a couple of exceptions, none of them have been uploaded until now.

Not all of these songs fit the Pandemic Year mold. “Shadow Weaver” and “A Vulgar Surplus” both developed out of ideas I had sketched out in 2014 and rediscovered last year after I moved some old projects into my newer DAW. Ironically enough, “In the Year of the Plague” itself went through several fits and starts, with the final version only taking shape this spring. Maybe that says something about the long tendrils of our COVID year. Or not.

A couple of other notes. “The Laminated Llama” arose from an experiment with the SynthOne app on my iPad. “Please Scream Inside Your Heart” is my first experiment with sound collage, with a nod toward “The Waiting Room” from The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. It was inspired by news reports about a reopening Japanese theme park’s advice for having COVID-preventative fun. The samples are taken from various loop libraries and the BBC’s sound effect archive, along with some insect sounds recorded by me at Babcock State Park on a hike.

This isn’t a collection of doom and gloom. That’s lurking in a lot of the sonic crevices, but I hope that it’s also about finding some fun and beauty in the face of a world in crisis. I had fun putting these tunes together. Hope you get some enjoyment listening to them.

The artwork here is by frank_to_artist on Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons 2.0 license. Modified by yours truly.