Album Assignments: The Lumineers

The Lumineers’ debut album was released on April 3, 2012. The #1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 that week was “We Are Young” by Fun. Before that it was “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)” by Kelly Clarkson. Before that was “Part Of Me” by Katy Perry.

What all these songs have in common, along with most songs in Top 40 then and now, is HUGE production. Sure, there may be a piano or guitar at the beginning, and there may be an a capella or rap breakdown somewhere in there, but at least by the time the chorus kicks in, all of these songs are supported by layers and layers of synths, echo, and various digital production tricks to create a thick, dense waveform, a tsunami of sound that physically washes over the listener. This isn’t a bad thing — it can be very powerful, which is probably what makes it so very popular. And boy oh boy is it popular right now.

Compare this to the sound on The Lumineers, whose defining aural quality is open space. Almost every instrument is acoustic, and very few instruments even appear on a given track. Vocals are in the forefront, but they aren’t heavily processed, and they’re frequently accompanied by only one instrument, or none at all. Where the sound level does build, it tends to be from natural timbres — a chorus of voices, stomping feet, clapping hands.

Lumineers album cover

This style gets called a few different things — alt-folk, indie folk, Americana. But it strikes me that in an age dominated by electronic instruments and high-gloss production, the impulse behind The Lumineers has an awful lot in common with punk rock. Like The Ramones and The Clash, The Lumineers reject the dominant form of their time and hearken back to the simpler sound of an earlier era.

But unlike punk, they’re going back a little further, and to a different section of the culture — one more rural, less industrialized. (Also, they’re not quite the pioneers that The Ramones were, rather following in the tracks left by Mumford & Sons, and in a slightly different sense Arcade Fire and The Decemberists. But hey, they’re local heroes, so I’m putting the assignment spotlight on them.) From the way they dress to the simple instrumentation and arrangements, The Lumineers’ image and sound is rooted in the folk music of at least a hundred years ago.

That’s not to say that that The Lumineers entirely reject the modern world — their lyrics mention fast food parking lots, taking a bus to Chinatown, having your car window smashed but the stereo left intact. And there’s even an electric guitar poking through here and there, albeit played slow and solo. Still, even where they aren’t telling explicitly period stories (“Flapper Girl”, “Charlie Boy”), The Lumineers are miles away from the dominant pop sensibility.

That’s the easy part, though. Anybody can look at the charts and declare, a la George Costanza, “I will do the opposite!” It takes something a little more special to have a Top 5 single and two Top 5 albums with “the opposite.” So what’s their appeal beyond punky independence? There are a lot of factors that go into it, but I’d like to focus on three. First, impassioned vocals. Wesley Schultz brings an enormous depth and nuance to his singing. He’s never screamy, never histrionic, but the spaciousness of the songs allows him to bring out the deepest feelings in his characters — the betrayal in “Morning Song”, the dedication in “Ho Hey”, the gratitude in “Dead Sea”.

Second, the musical cleverness. I found myself doing double-takes as I listened to this album, starting tracks over so I could understand how they’d taken me in. “Submarines”, for instance, starts out with a piano just a hair ahead of the beat — a rollicking, syncopated sound. But a few lines in, the piano pulls back behind the beat and changes time signatures from 4/4 to 3/4, altering the feel of the song completely. Then a guitar comes in, and the beat switches back to 4/4, but we hear drums playing triplets behind the next verse. The song keeps switching back and forth, playing the rhythms against each other, percussive chords playing in standard time while voices shout “sub-ma-rines!” triplets in the background. It becomes dizzying, hypnotic, enthralling.

Finally, the poignancy created by the combination of lyrics and music. “Charlie Boy” is a great example of this. The words tell a story of a boy born in 1944, inspired by Kennedy to serve in the military, and killed in the Vietnam War. We hear about his mother’s worry, and the town’s grief (“Meutchen mourn our loss.”) A little research reveals that Wesley Schultz’s uncle was named Charles, born in 1944, and killed in action in Vietnam. His hometown of Meutchen, New Jersey, built a memorial for its three residents killed in the war. This story is told over a a duet of simply strummed guitar and mandolin, accompanied by a mournful cello. It’s a different, deeper mood than “We are young, so let’s set the world on fire”, and rather than overwhelming us with sound, it overwhelms us with emotion.

Album Assignments: Surrealistic Pillow

Most of my memories come associated with a strong sense of place. So it is with the day I bought Surrealistic Pillow. It was my freshman year of college, fall 1988, attending NYU, and one of my pleasures was cruising a circuit of various record stores in the Village. Browsing at St. Mark’s Sounds, I found a used CD of this album along the right-hand wall, for about 6 bucks, and snatched it. I’d owned the band’s greatest hits in high school, and I’d always heard about this album. With “Somebody To Love” and “White Rabbit” on there, it’s gotta be pretty good, right?

Not quite. It’s amazing. That album set me on a Jefferson Airplane binge, or at least as much of one as my poor college self could afford. Jefferson Airplane Takes Off, Crown Of Creation, Volunteers… they’re all great, but none compare to Pillow. Some of the songs on this album are, for me, transcendently beautiful.

But how do you write about something like that? I don’t think I’m capable of capturing a purely aesthetic experience in words. Maybe language isn’t capable of it. I really believe that some of this music affects me right down to the molecular level, with a feeling of divine elevation that is way beyond language, or perhaps deep underneath it.

Album cover from Surrealistic Pillow

So instead, I’ll just talk about when it happens. It happens when I hear the harmonies in “My Best Friend”, notes and voices blending in ways that are both unexpected and perfect. It happens in “Today” when all the voices come in (around 1:50), like a stage chorus, lifting the lonesome motif into the heavens — “Today, everything you want, I swear, it all will come true.”

It happens during the instrumental intro of “Comin’ Back To Me,” a quiet flute floating like dust motes in sunlit guitar picking. And it happens like crazy all throughout the incredible “Embryonic Journey,” quite possibly my favorite rock instrumental ever, especially in the powerful strums, like the ones around 0:32. Joe Jackson talks about music as “a cure for gravity”, and that’s what this feels like to me — the spirit borne aloft.

Chills of a different kind come from the quiet snare at the beginning of “White Rabbit.” That’s not so much elevation, but a spooky tingle, knowing what’s to come. All this talk of aesthetic transport and I haven’t even mentioned Grace Slick yet. Her voice has an otherworldly quality in “White Rabbit”, perfect for the distorted perception and unreality of the lyrics. “Somebody To Love,” her other lead vocal, projects not so much eeriness but icy authority. For all the hippie trappings surrounding this album, this song hardly feels like a flower child anthem — when she says “You better find somebody to love,” it’s a command, not a gentle suggestion. Then again, with so many people her age being drafted into Vietnam, maybe Slick’s imperative to love, compared to the government’s imperative to kill, is as counterculture as it gets.

Alongside this beauty and mystery is a strong strain of rock and roll. “3/5 of a Mile in 10 Seconds”, “She Has Funny Cars”, and “Plastic Fantastic Lover” are all energizing, lively rock tunes that exude freedom, and “Somebody To Love” itself is hard-charging and uncompromising. Come to think of it, this is the very mix of qualities that I came to love in Rumours-era Fleetwood Mac — loveliness from Christine, spookiness from Stevie, and rock from Lindsey, with all of them mixing into each other on various songs. I didn’t realize it on that fall day in 1988, but by seeking out Surrealistic Pillow, I was digging deeper into the San Francisco roots of a sound I already loved.

Album Assignments: One Lost Day

The Indigo Girls feel like old friends to me now. Within weeks of their 1988 debut, I was listening to them, and I’ve gotten every album they’ve released since. I’ve chased down bootlegs, collected their pre-Epic recordings, and faithfully fetched songs from soundtracks, tribute albums, benefit albums, and live albums. I’ve seen them live more than 20 times. The first time I played my guitar for Laura, it was an Indigo Girls song. Friends sang “The Power Of Two” at our wedding. They’ve been the soundtrack for countless road trips, evenings with friends, and hundreds of ordinary days and nights, sweetened a bit by braided harmonies, thoughtful lyrics, deep emotion.

So now when they release something new, it’s like getting together with people I’ve known most of my life. Somehow we just pick up where we left off. Yeah, of course it’s one way. And yeah, I know all about the difference between a public presentation and the private reality. I know they share what they choose to share, and I know it’s not always about them — heck, some of the time they even distinctly write in character, like “Cold Beer And Remote Control” or “Sister”. They may be writing in character most of the time, albeit less distinctly. I understand that songs aren’t diary entries, that there’s always projection involved, that their lyrics are often quite oblique to begin with. I know I don’t know them, not really. I know all that, and I don’t care. I’m not talking about facts, I’m talking about feelings. And how it feels is like we’re catching up.

Album cover for One Lost Day

So what’s going on with Amy and Emily these days? Well, based on One Lost Day, here’s what:

Emily

At this point in her life, Emily is doing a lot of looking back, a lot of evaluating. It seems like no accident that the cover of the album depicts her gazing into a car’s side mirror. Sometimes that rear view takes the form of pleasant reminiscing, as in “Elizabeth”, in which she thinks back on a long-lost friend. Pushing against the grain of today’s commonplace Facebook-driven reunions, she explicitly rejects the notion of reconnection: “I don’t want to look you up, I’m pretty sure it’s just enough / That I remember you fondly.”

Sometimes the recollection feels more painful, more suffused with regret, as in “Alberta,” whose lyrics give the album its title. Where “Elizabeth” recalls joy and carries that into the present, “Alberta” is more fraught — “And as hard as I try I just can’t let it lie / I get the feeling you haven’t quite made it home.” Still, she makes it clear that she’s not wallowing: “Can’t call it sorry, can’t call it sad / Maybe just the same as how a song can take you back / More like that.”

That lyric sums up the tone of most Emily songs on One Lost Day. The songs take her back to a breakup in “Southern California Is Your Girlfriend,” but not with anger: “You just had your plans and they didn’t include me.” Similarly, in “Learned It On Me,” she’s solicited for the kind of reunion she’s avoiding in “Elizabeth.” An ex wants to thank her for how much she learned in the course of her relationship with Emily, because she got all the dysfunction out of her system and now is happy, happy, happy. Not that her ex’s happiness does Emily much good — “I guess I should be happy I’m the course that set you free / I just wish you hadn’t learned it on me.” Even then, she faces the memory with equanimity: “It’s just me and it’s just you / And it’s just the way it goes, and now that book is closed.”

Some memories reach further back, as in “Findlay, Ohio 1968”. Emily’s grandmother really did live in Findlay, and the song is about her memories, but some of the reflections she shares could be from any childhood anywhere in America. The distant outcast girl, the wanderer boy next door, vague impressions of other kids’ household nightmares, station wagon wheels slapping on the turnpike. The Ohio 1968 setting allows Emily to express that strange quality memories can have, the innocence of not knowing what’s coming next, in light of the fuller experience of long life — “In two years time, Ohio would be up in flames” as unarmed college students are mowed down by National Guard rifles at Kent State.

Emily’s songs bookend the album, and while “Elizabeth” is probably her happiest tune in this collection, she also finds a measure of peace in the closer, “Come A Long Way.” As in the others, she’s looking back, but this time it’s a reflection on how much she herself has grown: “All my schemes drowned at the seams / Have left me fine in my own skin.” She’s also come to terms with her religious faith, a faith she’s struggled with in the past, in songs like “Trouble” and “Philosophy of Loss.” “It’s got your name on it” is the recurring verse Amy sings behind Emily’s words, “My name, my shame, my home, everything I own,” and in the liner notes thank-yous Emily makes it clear: “God, it’s got your name on it.”

Amy Ray and Emily Saliers perform at Magnolia Fest at the Spirit of Suwannee Music Park in Live Oak Florida on Saturday. October 18, 2014. (Photo by John Davisson/Invision/AP)

Amy

Amy seems pretty happy too, for the most part, though happiness with somebody like Amy is always complicated. She encapsulates that truth beautifully and powerfully in one of the album’s best songs, “Happy In The Sorrow Key.” Over a stirring rock and roll riff, she lays out a travelogue, to England, to Singapore, and to Kingdom Come as she imagines it, each one a spiritual experience of vastness, eternity, divinity. And each time she returns to the contradiction that defines her: “I’m happy in the sorrow key.” It’s a feeling I can relate to myself — somehow the aching, haunting quality of minor key music satisfies my soul in a way that regular do-re-mi can’t match. Amy wouldn’t be Amy without that sense of yearning — it’s what makes her who she is, and she’s happy as she is.

That doesn’t mean her neighbors are doing that well, though. Oh, no indeed. Amy lives in rural Georgia, and she’s been writing about her experiences there for over a decade now. For instance, in 2004’s “Tether”: “I kicked up the dirt, and I said to my neighbor / ‘We keep making it worse, we keep getting it wrong’ / He tucked in his shirt, he stood a little bit straighter / He said ‘We need a few less words dear, we need a few more guns.'” The theme has continued through a variety of songs, such as “Dirt And Dead Ends”, “Three County Highway”, and the excellent “Rural Faggot” from her 2005 solo album Prom. One Lost Day has a couple more entries in the country tragedy list. “Spread The Pain Around” shows a deeply dysfunctional relationship, the man trapped in his stoicism and alcoholism as the woman struggles to escape but can never quite bring herself to leave. Meanwhile, “Fishtails” tenderly observes a Georgia kid with shreds of innocence trailing, as friends and family lock into familiar grooves of drinking, domestic violence, and desperation.

Speaking of songs that call back to Amy’s solo work, “Olympia Inn” feels like the sequel to “Bus Bus,” from 2008’s Didn’t It Feel Kinder. In “Bus Bus” she’s on that tour bus, feeling lonely, hoping her partner will call, hoping nobody dies while she’s out there. She wonders if she’s pushing her luck, but she’s still hoping to keep the connection. In “Olympia Inn,” things have taken a turn for the worse. She’s on the bus still, or again, but no longer looking forward to that phone call: “She’s gonna call me when she’s down, just to knock me around.” Her stronger connection now is to her driver Johnny, as she pours out her sorrows to him, adding her tears to the pouring rain. She has no regrets about the life she’s chosen — “Oh Johnny, I’ve sung with pleasure / It’s a good life, there is no measure” — but she knows the price she’s paid too, and hopes for a little comfort when it hurts the most. “Hey Johnny, in the morning / When you wake me, call me ‘darling'”.

She also finds solace in activism, and this time around her cause is racial strife, as spelled out in “The Rise Of The Black Messiah.” Sometimes I find Amy’s political songs a bit tiring, kind of like a friend railing on about some justice campaign I don’t feel too attached to. Sure, I support the project, but it can be a bit laborious to hear about repeatedly. This time, though, I’d just finished reading a bunch of slave narratives and postbellum Southern history, as research for my most recent Watchmen article, so I felt a little closer to the subject matter. Even so, I tend to prefer her more personal stuff. She’s passionate, she’s articulate, and I love how much she cares, but I care more about her life than her causes.

“Texas Was Clean” gives me some of that life. Of all Amy’s songs on this album, it’s the one closest to the general nostalgic tone of Emily’s batch of tunes. She takes us to a corner of her heart where she holds a special place for Texas, remembering in pristine reflections how it appeared to her as a child — “as far from the South without getting out.” At first it’s just stray images: “boots on the floor of a barn”, “the gridded green” of a football field, the flickering vision of a horse on her bedpost at night. Then, as life proceeds and expands, she shares another Texas memory from later on — “In the Austin night under vapor lights / You laughed at me then you took me in.” The song itself feels pristine — pure harmonies atop quiet bells and acoustic guitar.

For One Lost Day as a whole, Amy’s songs this time felt just a little bit stronger than Emily’s, but they’re both working at an extremely high level, as they have been for years. It’s another strong album, and another bunch of strong songs, but even better for me, it’s another visit from my old friends Amy and Emily. Always great to hear from them.

Album Assignments: Ramones

Ramones is one of those epochal albums, an album that is said to have Changed Everything. It’s the original pure punk rock record, the one that crystallized a sound which would soon fuel recordings by The Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned, and a host of others. Broad generalizations about a scene as complex and multifaceted as rock and roll are always bound to fail, but here goes anyway. When Ramones came out in April 1976, rock was doing its damnedest to become legitimate — singer-songwriters like Jackson Browne and James Taylor, theatrical spectacles like Kiss and Alice Cooper, high-fashion glam like David Bowie and Roxy Music, classically intricate prog like King Crimson and Yes, and veterans of 1960s bands working harder and harder to prove their continued relevance. Into the midst of all this grown-up strutting, here come The Ramones with an album that is brazenly, unapologetically, and absurdly adolescent.

Or at least, that’s what I hear when I listen to it today. With all the weight of history it’s accumulated, I find it a little challenging to write about Ramones naively, but the truth is although I knew a lot about it, I never really spent much time listening to it. So when Robby assigned it to me and I put it on repeat, what I kept hearing was, basically, a bunch of smart-aleck kids, but kids who have a fierce and precise dedication to the beat, so much so that everything they do is made to serve that beat.

Ramones album cover

They cranked out one song after another, most of which hew to basically the same formula: brevity, breakneck speed, repetition around a few notes and chords, wilfully dumb lyrics, and above all, a rhythm section that puts a breathtaking rush of energy into every measure. Part of what makes these songs work is the contrast. While the lyrics communicate ennui, or degeneration, or cruelty, or frustrated romance, the music over and over again communicates abandon — joy, recklessness, freedom.

That’s adolescence all over, isn’t it? The songs themselves are like a mental map of a 14-year-old boy in Queens. There’s a fascination with taboo subjects like Nazism (“Blitzkrieg Bop”, “Today Your Love, Tomorrow The World”), prostitution (“53rd and 3rd”), and horror movies (“Chain Saw”, “I Don’t Wanna Go Down To The Basement”). You’ve got your kid drugs (“Now I Wanna Sniff Some Glue”), your kid crime (“Judy Is a Punk”), and your kid violence (“Beat On The Brat”, “Loudmouth”). There’s even a CIA-spy fantasy (“Havana Affair”). When it comes to sex, though, the whole thing is quite innocent. Aside from their musical attack, “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” and “Listen To My Heart” could have come from 1962. Heck, “Let’s Dance” did come from 1962, and “Judy Is A Punk”‘s “Second verse, same as the first” is a callback straight to Herman’s Hermits’ “I’m Henry VIII, I Am.”

Maybe it’s a fascination with the British Invasion that explains The Ramones’ phony British-ish accents? For as much as it often sounds like English singers lose their accents when they sing, The Ramones seem to be trying their hardest to come across as English. Listen to the way they sing words like “verse”, “first”, “brat”, or “girl”. Or for that matter, “Hey! Ho!”, which in their hands somehow becomes “‘Ey! ‘Oh!” My favorite manifestation is in “Havana Affair”, in which “banana” sounds like it came from London, and suddenly “Havana” is pure Noo Yawk. On paper the words rhyme, but in the tune they sound completely different from each other.

If they just had their lyrics, The Ramones would be nowhere. With just the tunes and the way they’re sung, they would have a weird charm. But once you get Dee Dee on bass and Tommy on drums, driving every song like a floored Barracuda, and guitars spitting pure hormonal ecstasy and madness into the increasingly pretentious rock establishment, you get a record that changes history. Hey! Ho! Let’s go!

Album Assignments GUEST POST – Robby Herd paints “Art Of McCartney”

Hi all. As I’ve mentioned, the Album Assignments series derives from a biweekly-ish game in which my friend Robby and I trade off assigning an album to each other. I’ve been writing about the experience, and from time to time so has Robby. With his permission, I’d like to share with you his lengthy and imaginative take on The Art Of McCartney. His writing style is pretty different from mine, and sometimes his opinions are too, but I really enjoyed this cross-disciplinary journey through music and visual arts. I hope you do as well. Take it away, Robby!

Claude Monet - Madame Monet And Child (1875)

Claude Monet – Madame Monet And Child (1875)

The Art of McCartney is a perfect title for this Paul McCartney tribute album, an album that has an all-star lineup of artists, new and old. It got me thinking as I began listening to it that each musical artist on the album is also like a visual artist, as they contributed their own unique artistic style to these classic works of McCartney. They offered their brush strokes and paints to their own canvasses, painting McCartney from their own perspectives.

For me, this album symbolizes world famous artists getting together and repainting Monet paintings from their own points of view. McCartney is the Claude Monet of the rock and roll world. His combination of lyrics and music are unmatched, and as years go on his music takes on whole new meanings. Like Monet, if you stand too close, you are not sure about what you see but as you back up and get perspective, those images become more vivid and beautiful. Monet is the master and Paul McCartney is the master. Images of paintings and artworks began to flood my brain as I listened to this tribute album to Monet/McCartney. Here are the artists and the McCartney pictures they painted.

Billy Joel – Maybe I’m Amazed/Live and Let Die

Billy Joel is Paul Gaugin, as he gracefully paints McCartney’s heartfelt lyrics with conviction and respect. Gaugin was a passionate painter who paid very close attention to detail, and Joel is no different with these two classic McCartney songs. “Maybe I’m Amazed” is a song that portrays deep devotion for a love that he can’t believe he has. Joel paints this song with much respect to the original, and conveys that meaning with the detail that only Gaugin can bring to his paintings. “Live and Let Die” allows Joel to unleash his emotions a bit, but still in a respectful, detailed way that doesn’t veer from McCartney too much. It works here, and like with any Paul Gaugin painting, I am mesmerized by the beauty and seemingly effortless brush strokes that expose so much meaning.

Bob Dylan – Things We Said Today

Bob Dylan. I could write for days and days about Bob Dylan and the impact he has made on American music. Dylan is Picasso on this classic Beatles song. He is a master painting another master, with his rough voice and fast-paced tempo. Dylan adds importance to this McCartney-penned song, and I felt like I was witnessing something very special and intimate, listening to Picasso paint Monet. Like Picasso, Dylan experimented with many different genres and styles in his life. I pictured Picasso-Dylan painting Monet landscapes in his cubist style throughout “Things We Said Today” and the result was one legend lending his devotion to another legend.

Heart – Band on the Run/Letting Go

Mary Cassatt was a pioneer in the male-dominated art world. She found her own unique voice and talent, painting private moments of women and their children in France. She captivated people and created an intimate relationship with her subjects and her admirers. Heart is Mary Cassatt in “Band on the Run.” They capture the intimate feel that song has when they sing, “but we never will be found.” The Wilsons were pioneers in the music industry, and they have always done things their own way, creating their own place in rock history. They paint both these McCartney paintings with precision and clarity, and make them their own. “Letting Go” is like what Cassatt would have done with “Madame Monet and Child,” to turn it into “In the Garden”. Heart took that intimate Monet painting and turned it into their own intimate portrait, but still honing the original master’s work. They are amazing, how they can cut to the chase with their aggressive lyrics and straight-ahead style. A bittersweet song about wanting to move on but holding onto the past is captured masterfully, like only Cassatt can paint and only the Wilsons can perform.

Steve Miller – Junior’s Farm/Hey Jude

I was struck how good Steve Miller sounds now. His clean, crisp vocals sound like he just came from the same session where he recorded his 1977 classic Fly Like an Eagle album. Miller conjures up clear images for me, as he reveals and unwraps the lyrics on “Hey Jude” like a Norman Rockwell painting. He humanizes Jude and shows compassion in the style that Rockwell was known for. He lends his All-American style to the McCartney tunes and I really enjoyed the ride.

Cat Stevens/Yusuf – The Long and Winding Road

For me, this is the definitive song about the breakup of the Beatles. It’s beautifully crafted and melancholy at the same time. Yusuf brilliantly adds his brush strokes of beautiful tones with intelligence and dignity. Rembrandt would often paint people and his portraits would look into their souls and capture them. This version of “Long” does that for me. It’s full of compassion and conviction. I can tell that the meaning of this bittersweet McCartney song is not lost on the former Cat Stevens.

Harry Connick Jr. – My Love

This one is easy! Henri de Tolouse-Lautrec painted with class and grace, and “My Love” is such a smooth, dreamy kind of song. Connick is right on with the mood of the song and he adds a touch of class to the McCartney love ballad with easy flowing brush strokes on the canvas. As I listened to Connick’s “My Love”, I kept picturing the intimacy of Lautrec’s “In Bed.” A brilliant painting of love and innocence, it parallels the innocent and simple love that McCartney portrays in this song as he is convincing himself that “My love does it good.” This version of “My Love” is Lautrec painting “Water Lilies” with the same paint he used for “In Bed.”

Brian Wilson – Wanderlust

This was one of my favorites on the entire album. Brian Wilson captures this underrated McCartney tune with the enthusiasm of Winslow Homer and his amazing seascape paintings. Wilson brilliantly captures McCartney’s angst of love but at the same time there is that Paul trademark optimistic view of love as well. “Where did I go wrong, my love?” “What better time to find a brand new day?” The song is full of turbulence and uncertainty, and Wilson conjures images of waves and restlessness for our heartbroken victim, but you know that somehow, he will be ok. This version of Wanderlust is Winslow Homer painting the master Monet in a style of “Breaking Wave.” It’s brilliant!

Winslow Homer - Breaking Wave (Prout's Neck) (1887)

Winslow Homer – Breaking Wave (Prout’s Neck) (1887)

Bluebird – Corinne Bailey Rae

This was too light and uninspired for me. She has a good voice, but she seems to not appreciate Monet’s contribution to the world. Rae is Marcel Duchamp, a French Dada artist. It’s emotionless and without heart. Bluebird deserves better.

Yesterday – Willie Nelson

The most covered song in history has a C.M. Russell quality to it. I never grow tired of this McCartney masterpiece. Yesterday is Monet’s “Water Lilies.” It’s beautiful and timeless. McCartney’s Lilies are painted by legendary country and western artist Willie Nelson. His rough voice lends respect and importance to McCartney’s words. He paints “Yesterday” with a quality of western art in a unique style that only Russell could paint “Water Lilies.” I have always loved how Russell can capture a moment in time and at the same time make the moment his own. That is exactly what Willie did here and it really works for me. It’s tender with a western edge.

Junk – Jeff Lynne

The former ELO front man paints a picture of Monet’s “Junk” with sharp, smooth abstract brush strokes like Diego Rivera. “Junk,” which was originally slotted for the White Album, is painted with love and devotion for McCartney. I enjoyed Lynne’s signature on this one and it shows how much the master influenced his music and artistry.

When I’m 64 – Barry Gibb

I found myself enjoying this version with its simple vocals and yet pleasing approach. This is Pop Art. Gibb is Andy Warhol here as he paints Monet. I am always surprised how much I like looking at soup cans when I think I shouldn’t, and Gibb sings “64” like Warhol paints. I know I shouldn’t like it, but I just can’t help myself.

Every Night – Jamie Cullum

“Every Night” is a gem from McCartney’s repertoire that deals with life as a Beatle – trying to create a balance between the rock lifestyle as a member of the biggest band ever and the desire to live a normal life. “But tonight I just want to stay in and be with you” typifies how McCartney felt at times when he was with the Beatles. Jamie Cullum has a thoughtful mix of vocals that betray both the frustration and the optimism that the song produces. To me, he is Paul Cezanne, pleasant and introspective.

Venus and Mars – Kiss

This remake is a perfect marriage as the rock band Kiss takes the McCartney classic and turns “Mars” into a Kiss song. Kiss is Jackson Pollock in this song as the paint/music is coming right at you with no apology. It is unordered and rebellious and that is what Kiss, McCartney and Pollock can be at their best.

Let Me Roll It – Paul Rodgers

This version has conviction and precision. It’s free-flowing. Henri Matisse painted people by capturing their essence, with jazz-like brush strokes that highlighted their bodies but made you look deep into their soul. “Let me Roll It” is Matisse’s “Le Rifain assis” to me. Rodgers and Matisse have always made art that is freelance and loose but at the same time with focus, clarity, and a personal touch. Rodgers/Matisse does a beautiful job here paying tribute to McCartney/Monet with his own unique style but at the same time reverence for his hero.

Helter Skelter – Roger Daltrey

The Who’s front man packs a punch that is fierce, energetic and full of conviction on the Beatles classic “Helter Skelter.” Daltrey takes command of this song and makes it his own rock opera. Camille Pissarro would take a French landscape or a café in Paris and make it his own as well. Daltrey is Pissarro in every way to me in this song. Pissarro, like Daltrey to McCartney, was a contemporary of Monet and he had the utmost respect for Monet, but at the same time was very confident with who he was and his role in the French Impressionist movement. The Who have never apologized for who they are and they have created a very influential place in rock history alongside the Beatles. Roger Daltrey with “Helter” is Camille Pissarro painting Monet’s “Sunrise” in the style of “Eragny.” It’s bold, flaming colors and music coming right at ya. This is one of my favorite tributes on the entire albums as he honors McCartney and doesn’t compromise who is as an artist. That is who Camille Pissarro was and Roger Daltrey is: original, uncompromising and taking a backseat to nobody!

Camille Pissarro - The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)

Camille Pissarro – The Church and Farm of Eragny (1895)

Hi, Hi, Hi – Joe Elliott/Helen Wheels – Def Leppard

Both interpretations of these Mac songs seemed very formatted; they lacked risk and originality. Elliott and the band seemed unwilling to take a risk, and very concerned to not disturb the original versions of the songs. Donatello (not the turtle) was always very detailed with his sculptures and also very concerned about sculpting exact replicas of his subjects, which were mostly historical figures like King David, Jesus and Mary Magdalene. I think Elliott’s admiration for his hero got in the way of his creativity and left these two songs uninspired and scripted. I would have been better off just listening to these McCartney songs and skipping these remakes. I’ll take Monet painting Monet over Donatello painting Monet anytime.

Hello Goodbye – The Cure/C Moon – Robert Smith

“Hello Goodbye” has been turned into a melted clock forever by the Cure. The Cure has created a dreamlike world with their music and they scream out Salvador Dali to me. Smith’s haunting, surrealist vocals splash the canvas of “Hello Goodbye” and “C Moon.” Dali could forever change perception of reality and that is what Robert Smith did with these two songs. He distorted the reality of these McCartney staples and put his own stamp on them, and I love it! Smith painted Monet’s “Jardin à Sainte-Adresse” with a Dali brush, and the end result is something new, exciting and unforgettable.

Let it Be – Chrissie Hynde

This McCartney masterpiece is one of Monet’s most famous and honored works. Chrissie Hynde lends beauty, imagination and insight to the canvas. This “Let it Be” pays respects to Sir Paul but at the same time the Pretenders’ lead singer adds spunk and spin to it. Like a beautiful painting that I can’t stop looking at, this version leaves me wanting to hear more of it. Hynde is Georgia O’Keeffe, the way she leaves a gorgeous impression with everything she sings. O’Keeffe’s style lends itself to immediate recognition – the moment you see one, you say, “That is an O’Keeffe.” That is what “Let it Be” is to me on this album. From the first note you say, “It’s Chrissie Hynde, wow, that’s beautiful. ”

Jet – Cheap Trick

Edward Manet would often get confused with Claude Monet because of just one letter that separated their last names. Well, there is no way you can confuse Cheap Trick with Paul McCartney but Cheap Trick to me is the Manet to Paul’s Monet. They are clean and fun and they have never taken their music too seriously. Manet would always paint people with certain a hint of mischief in their faces. His most famous painting, “The Spanish Singer,” depicts a Spanish singer who is playing his guitar in his torn shoes. Manet also caused a scandal when he painted a nude woman in “Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe” in 1863. Manet never took himself too seriously. There is always an underlying level of light atmosphere in both Cheap Trick and Manet, and “Jet” was performed like Manet paints; with a focus on his subjects but with a level of mystery about what they will do next.

Listen to What the Man Says – Owl City

This version of “Man” is too clean-cut and poppy for me. This did nothing for me. That is exactly how I feel about Keith Haring’s art. Owl City is uninspired Pop Art. This is Haring painting Monet — do I need to say more?

Got to Get You Into My Life – Perry Farrell

This is chaos with form. Farrell puts this magical Beatles song together with an abstract voice. It’s an abstract painting with colliding images, intelligently painted by Wassily Kandinsky. Kadinsky creating a Monet is pleasant to my ears and eyes, and it left me wanting to hear more of Farrell creating his Kadinsky of McCartney.

Drive My Car – Dion

Here is a marriage I thought I would never see: Dion, a 50’s original rocker, singing a McCartney song in 2015. There is nothing surprising here, though, as Dion lays the track with precision and a somewhat predictable singing style. He sings the song with clarity and respect; you can tell there is no doubt that McCartney has influenced him musically and this song was a way for him to pay his respects to the master. Dion is Rembrandt on this classic Beatles tune. Rembrandt would paint people of his time with respect and detail. That is what Dion does with “Drive My Car.” This is Rembrandt painting Monet’s “Self Portrait.” I can see in my mind’s eye the detail and devotion he put into the painting as he sings “Drive My Car” like sending a personal thank you to Paul and his inspiration. Dion was a pioneer in the late 50’s and early 60’s as he created a sound that is present in future works by many artists. The same can be said about Rembrandt. I think it’s fair to say that Rembrandt influenced Monet in a certain way and that Dion influenced McCartney and the way he approached his music as well.

Lady Madonna – Allen Toussaint

Allen Toussaint is a very respected jazz musician who is known for his unique, smooth voice and beautiful piano playing. He was a major contributor on McCartney’s “Venus and Mars” album and has the admiration of Sir Paul. I found this version of “Lady Madonna” to be understated and filled with beauty and soul. He captures feeling and mood in the song the way Edgar Degas would capture the heart and soul of ballet dancers in France. Degas’ trademark was his paintings of dancers, and I have always thought he was very underrated as a painter. He found beauty in the movement of dancers, and no two paintings of these dancers were alike. Toussaint found a way to create beauty with his jazz piano and velvety voice, and he takes “Madonna” and makes it his own. I was moved by what I heard. Degas adding ballet dancers to one of Monet’s French countryside paintings is what we have here with “Lady Madonna.”

Let Em In – Dr. John

Dr. John is one of a kind. I have never heard a voice quite like his and a style like his. He’s almost irreverent as he belts out the early Wings tune. It’s done with such a different tone that it works for me. This remake reminds me of the pointillism style that Georges Seurat would paint with. The way Dr. John barks out “Someone’s knocking at the door” is unique and it has his signature on it, just like Seurat would lend his signature to the specialized style of pointillism. These styles don’t work for most, but they both work for these art legends.

So Bad – Smokey Robinson

I have never been a big fan of this McCartney song. However, legend Smokey Robinson lends class and importance to this song. Smokey is Da Vinci, as he paints Monet with smooth acryclic paint and years of wisdom. He took a Monet painting that I didn’t especially like and put his own talent onto repainting into a beautiful work that only Da Vinci could paint. For me this is Da Vinci painting “Grainstack (Sunset),” lending it the passion with which he painted “St. John the Baptist,” with all its energy and devotion.

No More Lonely Nights – Airborne Toxic Event

I really enjoyed Airborne’s take on this 80’s Mac tune. They sang this one like Edward Hopper paints. He paints with fresh, exciting colors that capture an ordinary place with new eyes and a new perspective. Take a look at Hopper’s “Nighthawks” and “Hotel Lobby” – that is what Airborne does with “Lonely Nights.” It’s an exciting new take. They seize the moment in “Lonely Nights” and take it! Hopper is a master at capturing moments as well. This is what it looks like to have Hopper paint one of Monet’s later works.

Edward Hopper - Hotel Lobby (1943)

Edward Hopper – Hotel Lobby (1943)

Eleanor Rigby – Alice Cooper

It’s surreal to hear Alice Cooper sing “Eleanor Rigby.” Cooper has always been able to mix rock and roll with fantasy, and this version of “Rigby” was trippy and surreal to me. This is why Cooper is surrealist painter Rene Magritte in this song. Magritte would mix the dream world with the real world, and the result is Alice Cooper singing “Eleanor Rigby. This was the first thing I thought of, as this will be the closest I ever get to seeing what a Monet painting might look like if Magritte painted it.

Come and Get It – Toots Hibbert with Sly and Robbie

This is totally uninspiring and plain to me. This remake lets McCartney down. There is no creativity in this song. It’s plain and unremarkable. This is a Mark Rothko painting. Plain colors stacked on each other. The vocals are stacked on each other and it doesn’t belong on this album. Rothko has no business painting Monet and Toots and company have no business covering Sir Paul.

On the Way – BB King

This might be the best version of McCartney’s covers on this entire album. BB Kings sings with all he has! It’s poetic that McCartney developed this song off of McCartney II as a tribute to the blues and King honors this tune and the true spirit of its birth. There is no better person to play the blues than the King of Blues. King is Van Gogh on this tune as he made “On the Way” come to life with bright tones and vivid images. He paints “Water Lilies” with the fierceness of “The Starry Night.” It’s beautiful and timeless, and it’s a great tribute to BB King and the massive contribution he made to American blues.

Birthday – Sammy Hagar

I have always considered Sammy Hagar a bit on the abstract side. Stay with me for a minute before you scoff at my assessment. Everything he sings he puts his own spin on it and makes it his own. That is what an abstract artist does. “Birthday” is fun and it’s painted with Sammy abstract style and it puts a smile on my face. He is Paul Klee to me, painting Monet in a playful way. It’s like Klee painting Monet’s “Beach at Pourville” like he painted “Dancing Girl” or “Blossoms in the Night.” It would put a smile on my face.

Put it There – Peter, Bjorn and John

“Put it There” has never done much for me. Its tone is mundane and plain and I have never been very interested in its lyrics or musical arrangement and the overall feel for this song from Flowers in the Dirt. This is exactly how I feel about this updated version from Peter, Bjorn and John. It’s uninteresting, and does not do anything for me. I saw an exhibit many years ago of several artists at the Denver Art Museum. One of the featured artists was Carl Andre. His floor layouts and room sculptures left me completely unsatisfied and not interested at all. This is far from McCartney’s best work, but the trio did nothing to add to it. This is Carl Andre interpreting one of Monet’s lesser works.

This album was like walking through a Claude Monet exhibit that honored the great artist with remakes of many of his famous works redone by some of the world’s most famous artists. As I listened, I saw the interpretations in my head and it was one of the most fun journeys I have ever taken inside my head listening to an album. It also reminded me what a genius Paul McCartney is, and how he has changed the landscape of music for so many people. It’s impossible to measure the impact he has made on every person who loves the arts and the inspiration he has given to the world. Yes, the same can be said for Claude Monet!

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 19 – Comin’ For To Carry Me Home

As I mentioned in my notes on method, I had originally decided to leave out any works I’d seen/read/heard/whatever before, but as the project has expanded, I’ve decided to throw those back in. At the time, I believed that meant that to finish with Chapter One, I’d need to write a post on Dylan and another on Taxi Driver.

However, in rereading the v2.0 Watchmen annotations for that chapter, I realized I’d missed something. Though it’s flying well under the radar, there is in fact a cultural reference in this panel, or at least the beginnings of one:

Panel from Watchmen. Close-up on Rorschach shaking sugar cubes from a can onto the counter. Each cube is individually wrapped, with an S stamped on it. Dreiberg is visible behind Rorschach. Rorschach: That's right. Human bean juice. Ha ha. Badge belonged to the Comedian. Blood too. He's dead.

The annotations tell us that this panel is in fact:

The first appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes. (I don’t know if these are a Veidt product; the “Chariot” reference is his style, but the name refers to a Gospel song, which isn’t.)

Now, it isn’t at all evident from the panel itself that the sugar cubes have any particular brand name. All we see is a can labeled “Sugar”, and cubes individually wrapped with an “S” stamped on them. The cubes reappear, again anonymously, in Chapter 3, when Dreiberg seeks to sweeten Laurie’s coffee. (“Hell, I thought I had more sugar than that.”) It isn’t until Chapter 6 that we learn the brand name, from their description in Rorschach’s arrest paperwork, which includes among his possessions “5 individually wrapped cubes ‘Sweet Chariot’ chewing sugar.”

Nevertheless, the annotations are quite right that this is their first appearance, so let’s deal with them here. I don’t think there’s evidence in the text either way for whether those sugar cubes are a Veidt product, and I don’t think it much matters. The reference, however, to “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, matters a lot, on a few different levels. So I guess it’s about time to post that warning: Watchmen spoilers beyond this point!

First, even before touching the referent, I would argue that the cubes and their name operate as a symbol for the relationship between Dreiberg and Rorschach. Dan carries Rorschach in several ways, the first of which is evident on this very page of Chapter 1. Rorschach is destitute, and seems to live mostly off scraps provided by others, through their generosity, fear, or ignorance. Today he takes his meal from Dreiberg’s beans and sugar, a metaphorical ride which is literally sweet.

Dan also provides resources to Rorschach. They were initially partners, back in the pre-Keene days, but even now Rorschach benefits from the products of Dreiberg’s genius, such as the grappling hook gun he uses when we first see him in Chapter 1, and again when trying to evade capture in Chapter 5. Even closer to a literal sweet chariot is Dan’s owlship Archie, which swings low to rescue Rorschach from prison, and later carries him all the way to what will be his final resting place.

There’s a sweetness to that relationship, seen most clearly in the awkward handshake between them in Chapter 10. A sugar cube makes a fine symbol for their friendship, rigid but soluble. For Detective Fine, the sugar cubes crystallize the connection between Dreiberg and Rorschach — he knows that Rorschach had those sugar cubes on him at his arrest, and comments when he visits Dreiberg, “Hey, ‘Sweet Chariot’ sugar cubes! Only come in catering packs, right?”

Just as the words “sweet chariot” reflect on Rorschach’s relationship with Nite Owl, so does the song itself reflect on his story. It’s a song, first and foremost, about death.

When I looked over Jordan, and what did I see?
Comin’ for to carry me home
A band of angels comin’ after me
Comin’ for to carry me home

According to scholar Christa K. Dixon, “in the spirituals ‘Jordan’ refers mostly to the dividing line between wilderness-like earthly life and promised heavenly life.”1 A great many spirituals call upon some notion of transformation — that’s why so many of them center on the Book of Revelation — and in many of them, death is that transformation, a deliverance from the misery of slave life, and the promise of a heavenly reward. In “Swing Low,” that band of angels comes to retrieve the departed, to take him across the Jordan from this world into the next. The repeated refrain, “comin’ for to carry me home”, emphasizes the fact that the slave’s true home is not on Earth, but in heaven.

Rorschach also feels out of place in this world — for him it’s rudderless, morally blank. The only sane responses to it, as he sees it, are his own, and the Comedian’s. Something else binds those two characters together as well — though there’s an awful lot of death in Watchmen, only two of the main characters die: Rorschach and The Comedian. And since The Comedian’s death occurs before the story begins, only Rorschach can be said to die in the course of the plot. So naturally it’s with Rorschach that the Sweet Chariot cubes are associated — they foreshadow his death, and as he rides to meet it in Antarctica, he drops his final wrapper, which looms up huge in the camera’s eye.

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 11, page 3. A bleak Antarctic landscape, with two riders in the very far distance. A fierce wind blows an empty sugar cube wrapper, stamped with an S, into the foreground.

However, while “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” is most clearly about death, it has another layer of meaning. Historical evidence suggests that, among other songs, it was sometimes sung as a part of a slave code, signaling that an opportunity for escape was coming. In this context, “home” isn’t heaven but the free states of the North, and the angels aren’t supernatural guardians, but rather Underground Railroad “conductors” like Harriet Tubman. In fact, when Tubman died, the local newspaper reported that “she led those at her bedside in singing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot’ with her final breath.”2

Escape and rescue are recurring themes in superhero fiction, and Watchmen interrogates them, just as it does most other superhero tropes. With the Sweet Chariot sugar cubes, though, that interrogation begins only gradually. Rorschach first shakes them out of their container as he pursues what appears to be a traditional heroic trajectory: saving those in danger, in this case by warning them that the danger is coming. They appear again when Dan is taking care of Laurie, or trying to. This is a slightly more problematic idea of rescue, as he’s clearly attracted to her, and therefore has a bit of an ulterior motive. Also, she arguably she doesn’t need saving, having made her own sort of escape from a life she had begun to see as servitude. Nevertheless, Dan’s approach at this point mostly conforms to a typical heroic code of conduct, with him as the rescuer and Laurie as the damsel in distress, albeit in a considerably less dramatic idiom than superheroes normally occupy.

However, we learn that the sugar cubes are in fact called “Sweet Chariot” through an inversion of superheroic rescue — they’re listed in Rorshach’s arrest report, as part of the inventory of taken of his pockets when he was captured. Now he is the prisoner rather than the rescuer, and has to wait for Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II to be his conductors from bondage. In fact, the sugar cubes appear again in chapter 7, as Dan is sweetening Laurie’s coffee (this time successfully), just before they listen to news reports about Rorschach and Dan frets about how Rorshach will fare in jail.3 Then, when Fine visits in the next chapter, the sugar cubes provide evidence of Dan’s connection with Rorschach, and spurs the rescue effort: “Springing Rorschach any later than tomorrow isn’t safe.”

The final appearance of “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes in chapter 11, that wrapper blowing in the Antarctic wind, brings together the ideas of death and rescue. Rorschach is (somewhat unknowingly) heading towards his own death, but the mission that brings him there with Nite Owl is a heroic one: stopping Veidt’s destructive actions. Watchmen won’t let us have this rescue. Not only has the destruction happened well before the pair can intervene, but Veidt believes that the death is the rescue. In his “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” mentality, Veidt horribly brings together the two meanings of “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, sending death raining down and believing that he’s ushering in “an age of illumination” by doing so.

There’s one final aspect of this allusion to consider, and it’s a big one. By invoking a song directly connected with American slavery, Moore’s use of “Sweet Chariot” invites us to consider race, specifically the past and present of African-Americans. What can we say about African-Americans in Watchmen?

A number of incidental characters are black — the postal carrier who picks up Rorschach’s journal, the watch seller up the street from the newsstand, some victims of the tenement fire rescue by Nite Owl and Silk Spectre II, some patrons at Happy Harry’s, the prisoner Rorschach burns with cooking fat, the maid at Sally Jupiter’s retirement community. There are also three named African-American characters in the book: Bernie the younger (who reads the pirate comics), Malcolm Long (Rorschach’s psychiatrist), and Gloria Long, Malcolm’s wife.

This collection of characters neither adheres to stereotypes nor studiously avoids them. Bernie hangs out on the corner all day while his mom works, and speaks in street slang — “suit y’self, jive-ass”, or “shee-it.” Malcolm and Gloria, on the other hand, are consummate white-collar professionals, with educated diction and middle-class dinner parties in their bourgeois apartment. Likewise, the unnamed characters run a gamut, from criminals up to ordinary workers. There’s nothing in particular binding them together outside of race. Gloria underscores this point with her indignant response to Bernie the elder’s suggestion that maybe the watch seller knows Malcolm: “What? You think we’re all in some Negro club; that we all know each other?”

Panel from Watchmen, chapter 2, page 11. The Comedian's gloved hand holds a lighter, burning Nelson's display of the United States, with labels affixed reading Promiscuity, Drugs, Anti-War Demos, and Black Unrest.

By making sure his African-American characters are neither demonized nor sanctified, Moore makes a point about race, albeit not a particularly deep one. A little more subversive is his suggestion that superheroes might serve a racist agenda. When Captain Metropolis tries to organize the Crimebusters, his display includes his labels for the types of “crime” to be fought: promiscuity, drugs, anti-war demonstrations, and… “black unrest.” Given that this meeting took place in 1966, and given the placement of the tag over Southern states, this “unrest” was almost certainly the Civil Rights Movement. Gardner is obviously a conservative, but it’s a little startling to think that he would want to employ operatives like Dr. Manhattan or The Comedian against peace protests and civil rights marches.

The New Frontiersman lives much further out on the right wing, and is even more shocking, in its favorable comparison between superheroes and the KKK:

Nova Express makes many sneering references to costumed heroes as direct descendents of the Ku Klux Klan, but might I point out that despite what some might view as their later excesses, the Klan originally came into being because decent people had perfectly reasonable fears for the safety of their persons and belongings when forced into proximity with people from a culture far less morally advanced.

It’s already stunning to read an argument defending the KKK, but the comparison between that group and superheroes is chilling indeed. And yet, we’re forced to admit that the comparison isn’t entirely off-base. Klan members dress themselves in distinctive costumes and ride into the night to defend their status quo. I’ve written before about how superheroes also defend the status quo, fighting against the forces of change.

In a typical superhero comic, those forces of change are obviously negative, but Watchmen challenges the genre fan’s assumption that this would always be so. Sometimes even the most progressive change is disruptive, and sometimes it deeply frightens people attached to the old order. When those people put on masks and terrorize the change agents, we find their actions despicable. Yet what is so different about superheroes themselves, besides the nature of the status quo they defend? And if they were defending a repugnant philosophy, by use of violence, wouldn’t we want a law preventing that?

There’s one more overt reference to race in Watchmen. It comes towards the end of Chapter 6, after Long’s last session with Rorschach, the one in which Rorschach tells the story of Gerald Grice and his dogs. In the journal entry that follows, Long’s diction has acquired the clipped patterns of Rorschach:

Walked home along 40th street. A black man tried to sell me a Rolex watch. When I kept walking he started shouting “Nigger! Hey nigger!” Ignored him. Bought paper.

This narration happens at the top left panel of a page. The previous panel was Long, palm to face, overwhelmed by the darkness of Rorschach’s experiences. Rorschach has told him that existence has “no meaning, save what we choose to impose,” and that it is only humans who create the brutality and evil of this world. Immediately afterward, the world seems determined to prove Rorschach right. On the next page, Long stares at an ink blot, and realizes: “In the end, it is simply a picture of empty meaningless blackness.” And the final panel before the quote is just that: pure blackness.

Let me suggest that this ending has a metaphysical level, yes, but on another level it is also about, well, blackness. In the end, skin color, nose shape, hair curliness, and the rest have no meaning, save what we choose to impose. To understand the meanings we have chosen around race is to understand the horror of our history. The captivity and slavery that made people long for death, the bloody war we fought to vanquish it, the hooded men searing the night with beatings, burnings, and lynchings… it’s us. Only us.

Previous Entry: A Real Rain

Endnotes

1 Negro Spirituals: From Bible To Folk Song, pg. 29. [Back to post]

2 Robert Darden, Nothing but Love in God’s Water, pg. 28. [Back to post]

3 There’s something a bit odd about this scene. On page 11, panel 2, we see the full bag of sugar cubes, and can read part of the “Sweet Chariot” label. On the next page, Dan asks Laurie, “Did I put enough sugar in the coffee? I went out to the store specially…” The issue had already made the point he was at the store — he cites that as the reason Laurie was able to activate the flamethrower: “I was down here checking out the systems earlier. I left everything switched on when I went out to the store.” So we know he was at the store, and that his main purpose was to get sugar.

But if “Sweet Chariot” sugar cubes only come in catering packs, how did Dan pop over to the store to buy some? In the scene with Detective Fine in the next chapter, the fact that those cubes aren’t available at the store is why Fine cites them — if they only come in catering packs, Rorschach couldn’t have bought them, and therefore was much more likely to have been supplied by Dreiberg. This strikes me as an idea Moore had when writing chapter 8, and liked enough that he decided to overlook the contradictory evidence in chapter 7. [Back to post]

Album Assignments: Bachelor No. 2 or, the Last Remains of the Dodo

There’s a lot that I love about Aimee Mann’s music, but if I had to pick just one thing, it would be her witty, sophisticated, devastating lyrics. The woman really knows her way around a metaphor, and that skill is in evidence all over Bachelor No. 2.

Take, for example, “Red Vines”, one of the album’s real masterpieces. The song is about knowing and loving someone who is fun, charming, and destructive, both to himself and to others. (The song doesn’t specify the gender of its subject, but for simplicity let’s pretend it’s a man. Something about it feels male to me.) Here’s the opening quatrain:

They’re all still on their honeymoon
Just read the dialogue balloon
Everyone loves you
Why should they not?

Already we’ve got two metaphors in play. First, the honeymoon — the fun, wild, carefree part of a relationship, an exhilirating time before the real work sets in. But the narrator isn’t part of that honeymoon — she’s observing it, as the song’s subject entertains and charms a group of people. From the first line, Mann establishes narrative distance, and a sense of fun with doom embedded within.

Then there’s the comics metaphor: “read the dialogue balloon”. Again, there’s a distance within that description — seeing the subject as not just a character in a story, but someone trapped within panels, and transparent to the reader in a way he isn’t to the other characters. That dialogue balloon is a way of making interaction manifest as an object, and when we are able to see someone’s words that way, it lessens the power of the spell they might have otherwise cast.

So far we’ve got a rhyme scheme of AABC. Now here comes the second verse to resolve that:

And I’m the only one who knows
That Disneyland’s about to close
I don’t suppose you’d
Give it a shot?
Knowing all that you’ve got
Are cigarettes and Red Vines

Before we touch the metaphor, can we bow down for a second to those brilliant rhymes? The first two lines introduce a new rhyme (DD), which is then repeated as an internal rhyme in the third line with “suppose”, before resolving the rhymes from the first stanza (BC), then another hit on C (“got”, to rhyme with “not” and “shot”) to sweep into the chorus. That is great stuff. Not only that, the Disneyland metaphor wonderfully recapitulates and clarifies the image of the honeymoon — everything’s fun and thrilling right now, and everybody thinks it’s going to stay that way except for the narrator, who knows much better because she’s seen it before. Disneyland closes every day. Honeymoons always end.

Finally, there’s the title image of the song, and the linchpin of the chorus: cigarettes and Red Vines. Both of those things provide a rush, which later fades into a nasty, sick feeling. With repetition, they can do a whole lot of damage to you, but they can also be really hard to leave behind. Everybody who’s had a relationship like this, raise your hand. Yep, me too.

Album cover from Bachelor no. 2

That song isn’t the only one on the album that perfectly encapsulates a rather hopeless relationship. In fact, to one extent or another most of them do that, some more metaphorically than others. Probably the other one in “Red Vines”‘ league metaphorically is “Driving Sideways”, an image that nails the sense of false motion that can imbue doomed relationships. The notion of driving sideways pulls a few concepts together, each relevant to broken love affairs: wrongness, danger, momentum, obliviousness. In fact, more than obliviousness:

And you will say
That you’re making headway
And put it in overdrive
But you’re mistaking speed
For getting what you need
And never even noticing
You never do arrive

Having established with the title metaphor that the relationship in question is headed in the wrong direction, Mann raises the stakes by showing that the person driving it not only doesn’t understand the trouble, but is in fact accelerating it and mistaking that acceleration for progress.

Sometimes the metaphors build on each other, as in “Susan”, whose first stanza ends with a fuse, its second with a grenade, and its third with a roman candle, leaving a vapor trail in the sky. Or “Calling It Quits”, which starts with Monopoly money, then moves to “paid in chips / From a diamond as big as the Ritz”. “Paid in chips” evokes poker chips, but the next line flips that image with a Fitzgerald reference and the idea that the narrator’s compensation is no longer fake currency, but rather castoffs from someone with a mind-boggling level of wealth and privilege.

All of it serves the Mann signature tone, which is hard to sum up in a word, but the phrase for it might be “Well, this all seems horrible.” It’s distanced, but still angry. It’s depressed, but cracking jokes. It’s on its way out the door — she’s packing in “How Am I Different?”, bailing this town in “Ghost World”, calling it quits in… well, you know. Now that she’s met you, she wonders if you’d object to never seeing each other again.

Nobody captures this feeling like Aimee Mann, especially on this album. She knows exactly how it feels to be on the sidelines, hands tied, watching the show, and she knows just how to bring us back to when we were there too.

Geek Bowl X answer recap

And now, the Geek Bowl X answers!

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Geek Bowl X question recap

Ahhhhh… Geek Bowl. It has become one of my favorite days of the year. And this year, it was held in Denver once again (as it was for its first 5 years, before moving on to Austin and then Albuquerque.) So I saved a little travel money, and didn’t have to ask Laura for as much childcare time. Woo!

Geek Bowl would be super fun even if I was terrible at it, but enormous good fortune has landed me on an incredible team of trivia players. Two years ago, at Geek Bowl VIII, we won the whole thing as “How I Met Your Mothra“. Last year we came in 2nd place as “The Mothras Of Retention.”

This year we were going to be “Mothra Hoople” (my personal favorite Mothra joke so far) but then our team captain got a peculiar message from Geeks Who Drink CEO John Dicker: “Hey Brian – weird request… any chance I can talk you into having your Geek Bowl team be named How I Met Your Mothra? I can’t explain why, but it will make sense at the event. Trust me, you’ll understand and be happy I asked.” Who are we to refuse a request like that? So we were “How I Met” again, and it did indeed make sense at the event. More about that in a bit.

This year we decided to splurge and get ourselves some team t-shirts — 6 shirts, each with its own letter to spell out “MOTHRA”. You know what, it’s just easier if I show you. Here we are in our MOTHRA t-shirts.

Team MOTHRA in our t-shirts.

From left to right, that’s Larry, me, Don, Jonathan, George, and Brian. And here we are in our MOTHRA t-shirts holding the oversized novelty check that came with our SECOND PLACE FINISH!!!

Team MOTHRA holding a big $5000 check

For perspective, last year we came in 2nd out of 134 teams. This year we came in 2nd out of 228 teams. Did I mention it’s an incredible group? Wow. The team we lost to last year came in 3rd this year. Who came in 1st? And 4th? And lots of other places? Little story there.

TCONA Story

Five years ago I went to the first annual TCONA, or “Trivia Championships Of North America”, which they aren’t really. It’s more like a big woolly 3-day Basement Bowl, but with lots of different kinds of trivia events, held in Las Vegas, and attended by some of the real elites in the American trivia world — people who run trivia companies, kick ass at quiz bowl, and/or have won life-changing money on Jeopardy!, Millionaire, and elsewhere. Obviously, not everybody there is at that level, but enough are that it’s pretty heady company.

TCONA has been going on for 5 years now, and it has created a community among these players. Most of my teammates have been to it multiple times, and in fact that’s how Larry connected with and later recruited Jonathan for our team. (I’d have been happy to go back, but can never quite justify the money + time commitment to myself each year. Hopefully as Dante gets older, summer will get less complicated.) Geek Bowl has now become a big enough deal that it draws quite a few people from that TCONA community, who travel to wherever it’s held and compete in teams.

In fact, for the last couple of years the estimable Bill Schantz has hosted a Geek Bowl Eve get-together for this group, in which everybody converges on a rented house and quizzes the night away. This year, the game was a Jeopardy-inspired buzzer format called “5×5” — 5 players compete across 5 categories. So, I spent my Friday night getting absolutely slaughtered on the buzzer by a bunch of game-show/quiz-bowl champs, and loved every second of it. I also got to read/host a number of games, which was fun, and spend a little social time with trivia rockstars. Awesome.

On Geek Bowl night, many of those same faces graced the stage, and no surprise: they are really good. It’s quite a privilege to be up in that company, and I think part of how Mothra gets there is through its excellent team dynamic. There is a whole lot of mutual trust and respect there — everybody gets a voice, nobody puts their ego on the line, and we’ve gotten really good at sifting quickly through a large number of inputs to find the output we collectively feel best about. We’ve also got some good ground rules in place, refined a bit from last year:

Mothra’s Rules Of Pub Trivia

  1. Read/listen to the damn question.
    1. Read it again.
    2. Pay attention to the category.
  2. Don’t interrupt the question/audio; let it finish before guessing out loud.
  3. If you think of an answer, say it/write it.
    1. Make sure at least two other teammates hear/see it.
    2. If you heard a teammate suggest a good possible answer that’s not being discussed, throw it out there again.
  4. Everyone look over each answer sheet before turning it in.
  5. If the answer is a name and surnames are enough, we don’t need to write the first name.
  6. If spelling doesn’t count, don’t sweat it.
  7. If an answer is used once in a quiz, nothing prevents that answer from being used later in the same quiz (the Quincy Jones Rule).
  8. Avoid facetious answers (the Ernie Banks Rule – so named after we got a question wrong in a practice round when somebody jokingly said that Ernie Banks, aka “Mr. Cub”, was “obviously from the Mets,” and then our non-sporty scribe dutifully wrote down “Mets.” Heh.)
  9. Put an answer for each question, even if the whole team believes it’s probably/certainly wrong. You can object to that bad answer, but have a better answer at the ready.

Having these rules in place, and following them as consistently as possible, allows our scores to become a true measure of our collective team knowledge without any distortion or missed opportunities from arguments, confusion, or miscommunication. That really helped us out this year, because with the Geek Bowl time limits in place, there’s no room to get sidetracked. We also worked out a joker threshold in advance, which really really helped. (If the words “joker threshold” mean nothing to you, see the Geek Bowl format info below.)

The team met at Ernie’s Pizza on Saturday afternoon for lunch, and warmed up with some homemade questions. Since it was the 10th Geek Bowl, Don thought they might ask about various 10s — 10th Academy Awards, 10th Super Bowl, etc., so we brushed up on those. (Of course, they did do 10-themed rounds, just not anything we’d thought to study. Heh.)

Jonathan brought a sheet he’d made, listing #1 songs from the 80s forward, anagrammed. Some examples:

Me Fattier Item
Pecans Balk
Avalanche Heater Ponies
Salsa Bathtub Alto
Airplay Reek
Yellowing Mothra

(Answers provided in the answers post.) After a fine afternoon, we headed to the Magness Arena, where the Geeks had set up tables, stage, screens, and so forth. As in the past few years, Geek Bowl was extremely well-run. They’ve figured out that if hundreds of teams are playing (and paying), but only 5 are getting money, everybody else had better have a great time. Consequently, they make the entire night very entertaining, and reduce tedium (i.e. during scoring breaks) as much as they possibly can. It’s amazing to me that they processed as many answers as they did and I still never felt like I was waiting too long.

They also bring in talent to provide musical entertainment during those scoring breaks, and this year the featured band was Metalachi, self-proclaimed as “The World’s First And Only Heavy Metal Mariachi Band”. They lived up to their billing — lots of fun, with legit musicianship underneath. This Geek Bowl was also the first to have a semi-celebrity host, in the person of Eugene Mirman, comedian and voice of Gene on Bob’s Burgers.

This, in my opinion, was less successful. I hope he didn’t charge the Geeks very much, because he did virtually no comedy material, and in fact occupied his sections with all the panache of a middle manager on “Beyond Casual” Friday. Every time he came out, the best he could do was stuff like, “Who here is from Vancouver? Raise your hands! Wow, how about that. Who’s from Arizona? Great to see you!” He tried to engage the longstanding GWD animosity against Philadelphia (not going to try and explain that one here), but just landed on (paraphrasing), “Aw, Philly is a sort of nice place!” Sheesh.

The Geek Bowl Format

This is the part where I copy and paste the Geek Bowl info, rules, and disclaimers from previous years, slightly updated. Feel free to skip to the Opening Ceremonies section if you know all this already.

As I’ve done in previous years, I’m going to recap the questions and answers here. A few caveats about this, though. First, the Geeks are pretty careful about their intellectual property, and the agreement we’ve worked out is that I won’t post these recaps until at least a week has elapsed since the Geek Bowl. (Though all things considered I’d have a hard time getting this together in less time anyway!)

Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink, and I have not been supplied with question material. The recap below is not a verbatim representation of the Geek Bowl 10 questions. They are reconstructed from my notes and memories, which are very fallible. I do take photos of some of the question slides — cameras are allowed at Geek Bowl as long as they can’t receive data. However, even those slides are very frequently paraphrases rather than verbatim reproductions of the questions as read. I am certain I have left out some of the cleverness, some of the humor, and some of the pinning precision. Anything in the questions and answers below that is wrong or crappy is my fault, not theirs.

The GWD question material leans heavy on pop-culture and light (though not zero) on sports. In between, there is plenty of academic trivia: history, geography, science, and so forth. They have also always tried to make a point of being edgy, often self-consciously so. This has evolved over the years from “We insist on sex, cursing, and gross-outs” to “Don’t be surprised when you encounter sex, cursing, or gross-outs.” Especially at Geek Bowl, it used to feel like there was some obligatory raunch, and that those questions were kind of pandering, lowbrow stuff that didn’t really match the rest of the quiz. Now the raunchy stuff is just as erudite and clever as anything else in the question set, and its prominence has been toned way down, but it’s also always still there.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. (Though some late registrants had to sit in the fixed arena seats, which had to be a bummer. I salute you, arena seat teams!) Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Some rounds are all-video, meaning rather than anyone reading questions, the whole round is encapsulated in a video presentation on the screens. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters. (Though rounds 3 and 4 had a 4-minute timer, for reasons that will become clear in the recap.)

The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, one other round was upgraded from 8 potential points to 15 — we could see from the pre-printed answer sheets that question #8 in Round 3 would have 8 answers, for a total of 15 answers in the round.

Finally, teams can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 15 or 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. In previous years, our Round 2 threshold has been 14 — in other words, if we felt very confident about 14 out of 16 answers in Round 2, we would joker it. However, last year’s Round 8 was really freakin’ hard, so in fear of that we lowered the Round 2 threshold to 13. We didn’t do a good job of settling on a Round 3 threshold — that’s a note for next year, because it did cause some unnecessary debate. In any case, if we didn’t joker Rounds 2 or 3, we would automatically joker Round 8.


Opening Ceremonies

The doors had opened at 6pm, and at 7pm, the event began! Three runners carrying huge read flags bearing a “G”, “W”, and “D” sped around the perimeter of the arena, heralding the entrance of a miniature marching band, complete with drum major. Behind this legion came the rest of the quizmasters, dozens strong, all carrying little pennants and wearing sashes. Some carried effigies of the GWD logo characters, who have names that I can neither remember nor Google at the moment. These official Geeks ascended the stage to sing the GWD fight song, which was hilarious but on which my memory also fails me. My note-taking mojo was not yet in gear! Hopefully GWD will release a video of it at some point.

Speaking of video, the next event was a special video welcome from Colorado’s head geek, John Hickenlooper. That one, we do have:

Gubernatorial shout-out for How I Met Your Mothra! Totally worth keeping our old name. As Gov Hick said, the first round was homecoming-themed, since this was Geek Bowl’s triumphant return to Denver. So let’s jump right into the recap! Our team’s experiences are in [square brackets], and as with previous years, answers are in a separate post, since this one is already too long.


Round 1: Hormones On Ice

The homecoming round was a bunch of questions about, well, coming home. The questions themselves were adorned and interspersed by little skit vignettes depicting moments at a homecoming dance: teens dancing, a sleazy DJ, kids hanging out around the edges and chatting, a misfit yelling at popular classmates, everybody making out, etc. These sketches didn’t really have a whole lot to do with the questions themselves, and they went by too fast for me to take really detailed notes, so I’m not going to attempt to recap them. Just envision a little bit of high school drama between each question and you’ll get the picture.

1. First and last name required: What name is shared by the authors of You Can’t Go Home Again and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test?
2. In Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, C.J. goes home to fix shit in what L.A.-lookalike city that was also the setting of Grand Theft Auto V? [Some of us are gamers, but none of us are GTA-ers, so we tried to cobble together a guess based on what tiny scraps of knowledge we do have.]
3. Young adult Jews can get dirty in the Dead Sea through what 10-day heritage trip program that has been sponsored by Sheldon Adelson? [Oy. No clue on this one.]
4. Which Star Trek movie was subtitled The Voyage Home? [Here, on the other hand, is a wheelhouse question for all 6 of us.]
5. The Prodigal Son’s homecoming story appears in which gospel, the only one that is purportedly written by a medical doctor? [Very grateful for that “medical doctor” clause, which led us in the right direction.]
6. In his 2001 essay “On The Justice Of Roosting Chickens,” University of Colorado professor Ward Churchill infamously compared 9/11 victims to what Holocaust organizer with the same first name as the Führer?
7. Allegedly mistaken for an elk, which explorer was shot in the ass on his way back from the Pacific: Lewis or Clark? [Lots of pooling general knowledge to weight the coin flip towards one side or the other.]
8. What was the name of the Sean Combs-led band that did the poignant Top 20 single “Coming Home” in 2010? [And here we fall into another knowledge gap: Puffy bands. Took a wild guess.]

[This was a dispiriting round. We ended up with 5 correct answers.]
See the answers


Round 2: Metalachi

Round 2 is always a music round, and at Geek Bowl, always a live music round. This time the featured artist was Metalachi, who performed a variety of non-metal songs in heavy metal mariachi style. Well, not exactly non-metal songs: each song had the name of a metal in its title or artist.

The funny thing about this is that the last time Geek Bowl was in Denver (for Geek Bowl V), the Round 2 artist was also a mariachi band, albeit a traditional one. In fact, my team that year (The Anti-Social Network) won partly on the strength of a team member recognizing when the band played Johnny Cash’s “Orange Blossom Special”, which very few other teams got. So perhaps this was yet another callback to Denver Geek Bowls of ages past. Anyway, as usual I can’t describe this round without giving away the answers, so here they are:

1. Beastie Boys – “Brass Monkey”
2. No Doubt – “Platinum Blonde Life” [We were absolutely clueless on this one. We guessed “Nickelback” just to have some plausible metal in there, and “How You Remind Me” because that is the name of the one Nickelback song we know.]
3. Nirvana – “Lithium”
4. Steely Dan – “Peg”
5. “Weird” Al Yankovic – “Foil” [We recognized the tune of this as “Royals” by Lorde, but of course that has no metal in it. I think it was Jonathan who first figured out that it was the Weird Al cover, which also doesn’t exactly have the name of a metal in it, but is close enough, and in any case was absolutely the song that Metalachi was playing.]
6. Chromeo – “Jealous (I Ain’t With It)” [Not only did we not recognize this song, I don’t think we’d ever even heard of it. Possibly we are old. Anyway, we guessed “Iron + Wine” for the artist, and “Heart of Steel” for the song, following the dictum that even a terrible guess is better than nothing.]
7. David Guetta feat. Sia – “Titanium”
8. Shirley Bassey – “Goldfinger” [Several teammates Kreskined this one before the round even started.]

[We felt good about 12 of our answers, but that was below our jokering threshold, albeit only just. We stuck to our guns and did not joker the round. So we ended up with 12 points, plus our previous 5 made 17.]


Round 3: A Bag Of Dicks

Round 3 in the pub quiz generally has some kind of gimmick to it — true/false, multiple choice, speed round, a choice between hard clues and easy clues, etc. At Geek Bowl, most of the pub-sized stuff is hard to pull off, so it almost always ends up being a 50/50 round, and this time was no exception. The theme was all about bags, sacks, and so forth. Was the title just a case of GWD giving the round a gratuitously X-rated name? Put that thought on pause for a minute, while I recount the first 7 questions.

1. Who was the last named owner of Bag End: Meriadoc Brandybuck or Samwise Gamgee?
2. Dimebag Darrell Abbott was best known for playing in what band: Pantera or Sepultura?
3. Which purveyor of tea bags is genuinely based in jolly old England: Bigelow or Twinings?
4. Who has the NFL career record for getting sacked: Brett Favre or Peyton Manning?
5. Otherwise known as that bag you can’t afford, the Birkin handbag is named after someone. Is that person a designer or an actress?
6. What did Oliver Sacks primarily write about: neurology or paleontology?
7. Satchel Paige’s Major League Baseball debut was on the same team that broke the American League’s color barrier. Was that team the A’s or the Indians?

So far, so ordinary. But on the answer sheet, there was a section below the questions, saying that each team would be given a bag, that we were not to open the bag until instructed, and that there would be instructions inside the bag for what to do. Perhaps you might have an inkling of where this is going. The sheet had 8 spaces, with a color next to each: Green, Yellow, Teal, White, Red, Pink, Purple, and Orange. 8 points’ worth.

So. We were given a brown paper bag. Once we were allowed to open it, we discovered that yes indeed, it was a bag of dicks. Or, to be precise, dick-shaped candles, individually bagged in Ziplocs, and each with its own color and special, special scent. Like so:

Penis-shaped candles in small ziploc bags. I'm not exactly doing you a favor with this alt text, am I?

The instructions in the bag told us that the challenge was to determine the scent of each candle, from the following list of 12 possibilities:

BACON
BRUT MEN’S COLOGNE
CHANEL NO. 5
CHARDONNAY
FENNEL
GINGERBREAD
HEINZ 57 SAUCE
NACHO CHEESE
PUMPKIN PIE
ROSEMARY
SLIM JIM
SRIRACHA

People, these candles were horrible. Not because they were dicks, but because they smelled so, so awful. They ranged from merely unpleasant to “brutal assault.” About the ony one we felt sure on was “fennel” — the rest were brave attempts, especially given that some of the options (e.g. slim jims and bacon) aren’t terribly distinct from each other, odorwise.

Not that the smells are meaningful to anyone reading this recap (well, I suppose with the exception of other unfortunate dick-sniffers), but I’ll provide them in the answers post, along with the answers to the more traditional questions.

[No way did we feel good enough about this round to joker it. And rightly so: while we did well enough on the regular questions — 6 of 7 — we just barely scraped above 50% on the candles, getting 5 out of 8 correct. So 11 points, added to our running total of 17 for a grand total of 28. Or, as I stupidly wrote on the sheet and told people at first, because math is hard, 38. But really, 28.]
See the answers


Round 4: Mother’s Little Helper

Back on familiar trivia territory, this was a round about parenting and mind-altering substances.

1. Mommy’s Time Out and Dad’s Day Off are pandering brand names for what beverage?
2. With a runtime of just six minutes, Samuel L. Jackson recorded the definitive audiobook of what Adam Mansbach bestseller? [I think I was first with this answer, but I’m sure other teammates knew it too.]
3. To help induce labor contractions, women are sometimes given Pitocin, a synthetic version of what pituitary hormone. [Jonathan nailed this science question.]
4. Apparently, Dare To Discipline is a popular pro-spanking manifesto by what Focus On The Family asshole? [Gosh, it’s almost as if GWD has a point of view on this. Anyway, we struggled toward the name, and eventually Jonathan got it.]
5. In public restrooms nationwide, and perfect for snorting cocaine, what alliterative brand of wall-mounted changing stations has a cuddly brown-on-blue logo? [Thank goodness for that cocaine reference or I might have thought GWD was losing their edge.]
6. The 2008 documentary The Business Of Being Born featured a water birth — specifically a healthy baby boy emerging from what former talk show host?
7. This is a spelling question, so unlike most Geek Bowl questions, SPELLING COUNTS! That bald four-year-old Canadian fuck who’s had his own shitty cartoon since 1997: How do they spell his dumb French name? [Again, detecting a subtle non-neutrality here. Also detecting the awesomeness of Jonathan, who pulled out this name and its correct spelling.]
8. Starts with a D: In the Rolling Stones song that gives this round its title, what is the generic name for the “little yellow pill” mentioned in the lyrics? [The lyrics themselves don’t actually cite this D-word, or I might have had a shot at remembering it. We tossed out several candidates, and in the end, Mothra went with Jonathan’s answer. Good call as usual, Mothra.]

[Finally, a round we could feel unequivocally good about! We aced this one, for a total of 36.]

After round 4 but before the scoring break, there was one more question: a tiebreaker. In early Geek Bowls, ties would be broken by asking extra questions on stage to the teams involved, but that kind of left everybody else out of the fun. So recently GWD has taken to asking a complicated question with a numerical answer, and using it for a tiebreaker. This year they made a further improvement by asking that question at the end of Round 4, rather than at the end of Round 8 when everybody’s brains are fried. The question was this:

Take the number of kittens (K) in the children’s book Goodnight Moon, and multiply by the number of dog breeds (D) that compete in the Westminster Kennel Club Dog show. Subtract from that product the number of women(W) currently serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, and multiply the resulting number by the number of Sharknado movies (S) that have been made. Or, in other words:

[(K x D) – W] x S

See the answers

After this it was time for a scoring break. Metalachi played, people hit the restrooms or got food, and I went to check in with some geek friends on other teams. Let’s break up this post now with one of the excellent videos GWD made to kill time during scoring breaks. (They didn’t actually show this one until after round 7, accompanied by drag queen Bianqa LeGata and Harmony Chorale singing “My Way”, but I’m spreading the video love here.) Note that the following video has spoilers for: Arrow, Supernatural, True Detective, Inside Out, Hunger Games, Avengers: Age Of Ultron, Mad Max: Fury Road, Agents of SHIELD, The Flash, Gotham, Jessica Jones, The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. You’ve been warned.

After the scores had been tallied, they scrolled through the standings on screen. We were in 55th place.


Round 5: X Gon’ Give It To Ya

It’s Geek Bowl X, so how about a visual round that’s X-themed? Or, I guess, kind of lightly X-themed: iconic images missing a key component, to the tune of DMX’s “X Gon’ Give It to Ya.” Thanks to the Geeks for posting this very fun video:

[This was a relatively easy round, and we got full points, for a new total of 44.]
See the answers


Round 6: Continental Fight Club

This round was, by the Geeks’ description, “highfalutin.” Basically, the theme was fancy things and ideas from France and Germany.

1. Headquartered near Dresden, NOMOS and A. Lange & Sohne are well-regarded makers of what luxury accessory? [We really talked this one out. People started throwing out luxury accessories — handbags, watches, jewelry. Don offered that Dresden was an industrial city, so perhaps machinery like watches was more likely than something like handbags. Then George recalled that Dresden is famous for china. While this didn’t precisely fit the bill of an “accessory”, it seemed plausible that the question could be referring to it as such, i.e. a home accessory, and we felt better about it than any of the other answers we’d discussed, so we went with it. Too bad we were wrong.]
2. If your wine tastes like elderberries or your weed smells like lavender, it’s due to what French T-word that describes a crop’s environmental conditions? [Thank you, Jonathan, for knowing yet another thing.]
3. Recorded by both Louis Armstrong and Bobby Darin, what song about a stealthy serial slasher is the most famous number from Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera?
4. If your horse is doing a piaffe or a pirouette, you’re probably taking part in what specific competition?
5. Not to be confused with the capital of Lebanon, what Bavarian city is home to a very famous festival for the music of Richard Wagner? [Thank you Jonathan.]
6. Named for the color of all the costumes, what term refers to a classical 19th-century ballet style? [Another one we hashed out. We considered ballet blanc, ballet noir, and ballet rouge. Ballet rouge sounded slightly familiar to me and George, though Jonathan rightly inquired whether we were mixing it up with Ballet Russe, the Russian ballet company. Don argued that 19th century culture, with its Victorian love of purity, would be more likey to embrace blanc rather than noir or rouge. Good argument, Don.]
7. The Phenomenology of Spirit is the magnum opus of what 19th-century German philosopher, who revived the ancient Greek concept of dialectics? [Thank you Jonathan. I would have gotten there, but not as fast as you.]
8. Grand Central Terminal and the New York Public Library are examples of what architectural movement, named for a French school that taught exactly what it’s called? [Once again, thank you Jonathan.]

[We got 7 of 8 on this round. Thank you Jonathan. That brought our total to 51.]
See the answers


Round 7: Children Of Ten

This was another video round, this time focused on movies. Thank you Geeks for posting the video, because no description of mine could have possibly come close to communicating how much fun this was.

[Once again, we got 7 of 8, bringing our total to 58.]
See the answers

At this point, there was another scoring break. Metalachi played for a while, and then once again Bianqa LeGata and Harmony Chorale took the stage, this time to sing “Rocky Mountain High”, accompanying this glorious Colorado tribute video:

At the end of this break, the standings once again scrolled onscreen: we stood in 23rd place.


Round 8: Random Knowledge

Round 8 is always “random knowledge”, i.e. no particular theme, and questions that can span any domain. In the pub quiz, the point values vary from question to question (at first unpredictably, but now in a stable pattern of 1 2 1 3 1 3 1 4), but in Geek Bowl each round 8 question is always worth two points.

1. a) Who created the TV series Scandal? b) How about the TV series Orange Is The New Black?
2. a) What is the easternmost African nation that straddles the equator? b) Though it does so several times, what’s the only Asian country whose land is crossed by the equator?
3. a) In Japan, what is the only profession that still rocks the traditional chonmage haircut? b) What Unilever brand makes the Bed Head line of hair products? [George had a star moment on Bed Head — rocked it when the rest of us were clueless.]
4. a) Bill Simmons was removed in 2015 as chief editor of what ESPN web site that folded soon after? b) What other ex-ESPN guy once got shoved by Jim Everett for basically calling him a woman?
5. Math time! a) Express the base-10 number 69 in hexadecimal. b) Find the product of the following terms: (2x + 7) and (3x – 4).
6. a) Which Grace and Frankie title star married longtime partner Jane Wagner in 2013? b) What eight-letter hashtag trended highest after the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision in Obergefell v. Hodges?
7. a) A maar is a common landform caused by what geological rupture? b) The Smiths’ Johnny Marr more recently did a three-year stint in what Issaquah, Wash. band?
8. The only multi-time winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction are Booth Tarkington and what other two dead white guys? [We debated this one a lot, throwing out a variety of names. In the end, one of our guesses was right but not both.]

[We ended up with 14 correct answers in this round, and boy were we glad we’d saved our joker, giving us 28 points for the round overall. That brought our final Geek Bowl score to 86. I’ll note that our 2nd place score last year was 91, in a quiz with the same number of points available. Must have been a harder quiz this year, since we dropped 5 points and still retained 2nd place!]
See the answers

There you have it: the questions of Geek Bowl X! Thanks again to Geeks Who Drink for a fun night, a finely-wrought quiz, and that big, gorgeous check. See you next year in Seattle!

Post-credits stinger: For posterity and those who are interested, here are the rest of the #1 song anagrams:

Clef Rodent
Homeward Snort
Hide In Plots
Eek! Hurry Batman!
Spirited Hook Tilt
Black New Girl
Ephedrine Gin Toll
Madam Coke User
Africa Rolling Us
Rebid Sell Run
A Static Poet Ports
Mama Bye Cell
Mitts Redefine a Mop
Hebrew Toggle Note
Eyes Furl Solo
Whitish Wood Ties
One Puny Vinegar Vogue
A Fleece Photo Stat Hitler
See the answers

Album Assignments: Back In Black

If testosterone had a sound, that sound would be AC/DC. That’s what I realized after listening to Back In Black on repeat. Testosterone is about a few different things:

  • Power
  • Domination
  • Fucking
  • Competition
  • Display

It is a powerful, mood-altering substance, and under its influence, every one of those things is really, really fun. It does not give a shit about anybody’s feelings, and will not hesitate to crush its opposition and revel in doing so. I’m not a hardcore user, but as a male I’m still on a pretty steady drip, and what that means is that these songs sweep me up every single time. When that hormone is flowing, moments like Brian Johnson screaming “Don’t try to push your luck just GET OUTTA MY WAY” are just awesome. I’m plugged into the power, vicarious domination, and it feels good.

That’s the magic of AC/DC — between the pounding, bone-deep rhythm section of Phil Rudd and Cliff Williams, and the twin guitar onslaught of Angus & Malcolm Young, there is an enormous amount of force in their music, and Brian Johnson’s voice crackles along the top. They chose their name well, because this band’s sound is electric. Without testosterone, it could be scary. With testosterone, it is thrilling.

Back in Black album cover

It’s directly akin to the thrill I get from an action movie, or from watching a football game. There’s a damn good reason AC/DC was the sole artist chosen for the Iron Man 2 soundtrack, and why the song “Back In Black” opens the first Iron Man movie. The sound defines the character perfectly: the epitome of swagger, speed, sleekness, and strength, always ready to unleash fire and explosions. He’s testosterone on legs (and jets), and “Shoot To Thrill” is his middle name. Similarly, when Von Miller destroys Tom Brady (or Cam Newton, or Alex Smith, or anybody), the resulting crunch is a satisfying echo of “Hell’s Bells.”

When I witness those moments, my superego has left the building, and the id is bellowing “YEAH!!!” This all crystallized for me as I walked out of the Deadpool movie (which I loved), got into my car, and cranked up AC/DC like I’d been doing for days. It’s id, baby. Testosterone rush.

Now, when that rush fades and I shine a colder, more rational light on these things, they’re hard to defend. When people ask me why the endless explosions, punching, and mayhem of superhero movies are fun for me, the rational mind doesn’t have an answer. When Dante points out to me that those people on the football field are getting badly hurt, and I know that many of them live with constant pain and/or brain damage for the rest of their lives, I can’t tell him he’s wrong.

And god knows I can’t line up behind lyrics like “Don’t you struggle / don’t you fight / don’t you worry cause it’s your turn tonight” from “Let Me Put My Love Into You.” I’m a feminist, and the feminist in me is not cool with thinking of sex as “giving the dog a bone.” I recoil at “You bitch, you must be gettin’ old”, and can only giggle or eyeroll at the goofy Satanist imagery, or strident insistence that “rock and roll ain’t noise pollution.” I get that AC/DC has a sense of humor (“Big Balls”, anyone?) and that lets them off the hook partway, but I also couldn’t argue with anybody who is repelled by them on a lyrical basis.

But shit, those muted strums erupting into the power chords of “Back In Black”! The rhythm! The riff! The drums! The vocals! I am never not going to love that feeling, and my testosterone-fueled id has notified me that I’d better get comfortable with a little hypocrisy about it. Every single song on this album, including all of those I just mentioned, gets my foot pounding and my head banging. I can’t help the pleasure — it’s part of my nature.

And you know, as expressions of male aggression go, hard rock music is pretty damn safe. Rocking out in my car is nonviolent, harmless, and maybe even a little bit theraputic after a frustrating day. So shake a leg and have a drink on me, ’cause I got the power any hour to show the man in me.