Album Assignments: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

I never took the class on Wilco. Trish has been a fan for ages, seeing them in concert bunches of times and buying every album, so I’ve gotten to hear about Wilco a lot, but never actually listened to a Wilco album all the way through. The closest I’ve come were the Mermaid Avenue records, in which Billy Bragg and Wilco set a bunch of unpublished Woody Guthrie lyrics to music. I like those collections a lot, and on a recent re-listen to Mermaid Avenue, Vol. II I found myself really taken with the Wilco songs, so I had the idea to assign Robby a Wilco album, mainly so I could assign myself a Wilco album.

I sought Trish’s advice on which one to choose, and she picked for me: Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Based on what little I knew about the band, I guess I was expecting a nice album of vaguely folky rock songs, mostly about relationships.

That is not what I got.

I was not expecting for the first sound I heard to be freaky radio sound effects, tuning in and out. I was not expecting for the first song to completely change its mind, 45 seconds in, about what song it wanted to be — new drumbeat, new instrumentation, new feel. I was not expecting straight-up Dark Side Of The Moon homages. And I was not expecting Jeff Tweedy to start singing lyrics like:

I am an American aquarium drinker
I assassin down the avenue

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is not a nice album of vaguely folky rock songs about relationships. It is so much better than that.

Album cover for Yankee Hotel Foxtrot

Here’s a recipe for this album. Start with a base of alt-country — Son Volt, Ryan Adams, Tweedy’s old band Uncle Tupelo, that kind of thing. Mix in some roots — Grateful Dead, CSNY, The Band, Buffalo Springfield. Stir until blended, and then apply a thick layer of post-Meddle Pink Floyd and latter-half Beatles (i.e. starting at Strawberry Fields and going all the way down the line.) Drench the entire mixture in wild surrealism — Salvador Dalí, René Magritte, André Breton. Then set it on fire.

Yankee Hotel Foxtrot careens unpredictably from the bizarre and unparseable into the achingly heartfelt and back over and over again, so much that they almost begin to switch places. Take “I am trying to break your heart”, which starts out with the lines quoted above, then finishes them with “I’m hidin’ out in the big city blinking / What was I thinking when I let go of you?” There are five more verses just like that. One moment Tweedy is all, “Take off your Band-Aid ’cause I don’t believe in touchdowns,” and then suddenly he’s grieving, “I’d always thought that if I held you tightly / You would always love me like you did back then.” At some point in the song, you start asking yourself which of these thoughts are really the ones that don’t make sense.

Meanwhile, so many crazy things are happening musically, that I don’t even know how to describe. There’s a bunch of reverb on the guitars, and an organ that sounds like it’s practically underwater. Strums jump to the front and fade back again, rained on by tuneless glockenspiel (maybe?) and arpeggios that sound like somebody dragging a pencil along a grand piano’s strings and then looping the sound back on itself. There’s a perfect piano riff, behind which it sounds like a toddler is banging on the ivories. Zithers jump around in the stereo field. The radios hum, blinking in and out, and then over the title line all the background stuff starts to battle each other, all of it sounding dissonant and yet fitting the mood perfectly.

I listened to this album for three days. It feels like I could listen to it for three years and still keep finding new things. It’s that dense, that layered. The comparison that kept leaping to my mind is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and yeah, Wilco lives up to the comparison. The songs themselves, the interstices between the songs, the references back and forth, the endless bold and surprising choices, the sheer variety — it’s a record that leaves you certain that you’ve just heard art, musical creativity at its best.

I don’t mean to give the impression, though, that Yankee Hotel Foxtrot is some abstract, pretentious performance art piece. It is powerful and emotional, and the crazy lyrics and audio effects never seem tacked-on. On the contrary, they seem essential. More than anything, this album feels like a journey into an unusual mind. I’m not sure whether that mind belongs to Tweedy, or to his co-writer Jay Bennett, or to some kind of collective gestalt of the band itself — all I know is that I found it a fascinating, compelling place to visit.

Sometimes that mind is melancholy and contemplative, sometimes philosophical. (“You have to learn how to die / if you wanna wanna be alive.”) There are times when it seems scarily unsettled, near the edge or over it (as in the outro for “Ashes of American flags”), and then other times (like “Heavy metal drummer”) when it is as sweetly nostalgic as any Van Morrison song. There are moments where the trip churns into an eddy, as in the dirge-y “Radio cure”, or the occasional instrumental break that wanders off into the woods, but almost immediately something else comes along to captivate — a pang of melody, an arresting image, a sound you’ve never heard before.

It took me a long time to get to Wilco. I think it’ll take me a long time to really learn them. I can’t wait.


Album Assignments: Ceremonials

I love a slice of cheesecake. It could be topped with fruit, or chocolate, or caramel, or even nothing at all, and I will be absolutely delighted to have it in front of me. It feels like more than a dessert — it feels like an event. Every moment of eating that slice of cheesecake is bliss. If I’m feeling particularly ravenous or decadent, I might even have a second slice of cheesecake. But if you put an entire cheesecake in front of me, despite how much I love it, I would probably demur. A couple of slices is enough.

Yes, I actually do have a point here about Florence + The Machine’s second album — I haven’t accidentally started a food blog. My point is this: where many albums are like a great buffet, or a delicious meal, Ceremonials is an ENTIRE. DAMN. CHEESECAKE.

When any single track from this album comes up in the iPod shuffle, I am thrilled. The combination of powerful orchestration, tribal beats, building operatic drama, and Florence Welch’s astonishing voice makes for an epic experience. But listening to all twelve tracks in a row, especially on repeat, which is how I tend to listen to these assigned albums… it can be a little overwhelming.

Album cover from Ceremonials

The formula for all these songs is more or less the same. Let’s take one at random, how about “All This And Heaven Too.” After a few seconds of sound effects, there’s a steady beat and Welch singing pretty calmly, spinning an extended metaphor about the language of the heart. A shift into a minor key starts to ramp up the tension. Layers of Welch’s voice begin to swirl around the main vocal line, Kate Bush style, the range of the melody widening out until the chorus hits with a high note, and Welch shifts into belting out the lines, communicating emotional desperation as the drums pound and the synths swell. Now all those Kate Bush layers are in full effect, droning against and counterpointing the melody line.

Then it all drops out for another verse, just like the first. We build, and build, and burst once again into the same chorus, same layers, same grand parade of operatic feeling. Then there’s a wordless bridge, dominated by drums and vocal layers, stentorian chanting from Welch atop her own voice laying down base chords, and then that overflowing chorus again, resolving into anthemic vocalizations, all about how language can’t contain the level of emotion she’s feeling. And then the whole thing winds up quietly, as Welch sings about “screaming out a language that I never knew existed before.”

I mean, it’s awesome. It’s epic. It’s an incredible emotional ride, contained in the space of four minutes. And pretty much every song on this album is like that. But how many roller coasters can you ride in a row, before your head needs a rest? Is twelve too many?

It’s funny, I wrote a couple of months ago about how the Killers’ 2004 album came out just as the album sequencing era was winding down, and MP3s had turned people into singles enthusiasts once more. Ceremonials, released in 2011, goes even further, collecting 12 intense experiences into a set that wants to be spaced out, mixed in with less dramatic pieces so that it can tower over them in contrast.

When they’re sequenced back to back, over and over, it’s not that they become less good, it’s just that a kind of numbing sets in. You just can’t be transported again and again in the space of an hour. And yet, even when I listed to this on repeat, some songs retained their power to give me chills. “Shake It Off” is the first of these, quite justifiably a worldwide hit, and a memorable rallying cry to rid ourselves of the ghosts that haunt us. “No Light, No Light” is a close second, perhaps because its lyrics permit Welch to address a relationship directly rather than through a distancing metaphor. And finally, “Spectrum” pulls off the rather neat trick of a vivid visualization that ultimately maps back to an emotional reality: “Say my name, and every color illuminates.”

These songs are amazing songs. Every one of them feels like an event. Taken together, they are a little too rich for my palate. But when any single one of them is set in front of me, the bliss is that much more for not bludgeoning me with one high after another.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 24 – How The Ghost Of You Clings

[As always, many spoilers for Watchmen lurk below.]

Yes, Chapter 2 is full of flashbacks stitched together by present-day scenes. But that’s far from the only reminiscing it contains. As usual, Moore and Gibbons’ themes run several layers deep, and this is most apparent in the scene between Laurie and Sally at the beginning of the chapter.

Aside from the fact that the long and painful history between the characters is self-evident in their every utterance, there are also a number of memory cues scattered throughout the scene. Obviously, there’s the framed picture of the Minutemen, which leads Sally into her flashback. There are also framed pictures on the walls, tantalizing in their sketchiness. There’s the Tijuana bible, Sally’s way of “being reminded that people used to slobber over me.” And of course, there’s the ever-present bottle of Nostalgia (by Veidt) on the vanity.

Finally, as we come out of the flashback, we get a closer look at one of those pictures:

Panel 6, page 8, chapter 2 of Watchmen. Two-shot of Laurie and Sally, with Laurie exclaiming "Jon is not an H-Bomb!", and Sally replying, "Honey, the only difference is that they don't have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while." Behind them on the wall, hung such that the image is between their faces, is a portrait of a younger Sally in her Silk Spectre outfit, with the inscription "To Sally Jupiter, Best wishes Varga"

Which brings us to our subject today. Here’s what the web annotations have to say about this panel:

The portrait on the wall is inscribed “To Sally Jupiter, Best Wishes Varga”. In the real world an artist named Alfredo Vargas drew portraits of naked and half-naked women which appeared regularly in Playboy magazine. He sometimes signed his work “Vargas” and sometimes “Varga”. The portrait of Sally is very much in his style.

As often occurs with these web annotations, this is a case of “almost but not quite.” Some corrections:

  • There was in fact a pin-up artist named Vargas in the real world, but he was Alberto Vargas, not Alfredo Vargas.
  • His work did indeed appear in Playboy, but much more relevant to the reference here is the fact that his work appeared in Esquire from 1940 to 1946, in gatefold images that became a salient aspect of American soldiers’ lives during those World War II years. His Playboy art occurred much later (1957 through 1974) and was more explicit during those years, i.e. more naked than half-naked. Incidentally, while Leslie Klinger does a considerably better job with his Vargas gloss, he also gets these dates wrong, suggesting that Vargas didn’t separate from Esquire until 1957, when in fact the artist suffered a long fallow and desperate period between leaving Esquire and starting for Playboy.
  • There’s a specific reason why his signature varied between “Varga” and “Vargas”, and it maps directly onto his history with those magazines. According to Vargas’s autobiography, Esquire editor David Smart decided to call the artist’s creations “Varga Girls”, on the notion that it was “more euphonious” than “Vargas Girls”. (pg. 28) But Vargas’s parting from Esquire was a bitter one, and by 1950, after four years of court battles, he had completly lost the rights to the “Varga” name. (pg. 43) Consequently, his work from there on out was signed “Vargas”.

These facts bear directly on the Watchmen panel. Because the portrait is signed “Varga” rather than “Vargas”, we can reasonably conclude that the fictional Varga in this world did his portrait of Sally Jupiter during the war years. That conclusion also resonates with the many other manifestations of 1940s nostalgia, including the flashback itself.

Painted Ladies

So what was “Varga” all about, and why does it matter that he painted a portrait of Sally Jupiter that now hangs on her wall in the “City of the Dead”?

Alberto Vargas was born in Peru in 1896. At 20 years old, after a European schooling and a brief apprenticeship with a photographer, he found himself in New York, and there became entranced with American women. He was supposed to return home to Peru, but he chose to stay instead, and from that moment onward made his living as an artist, never straying far from paintings of idealized female forms.

During the 1920s he painted portraits for the Ziegfeld Follies, which in turn led him to gigs illustrating for newspapers, magazines, advertisements, fashion designs, and personal commissions. Through the 1930s he continued this sort of work and also found himself employed by Hollywood studios, creating many movie posters, as well as portraits of the era’s major film stars. It was in 1940, though, that he would begin the most iconic work of his lifetime.

For seven years, George Petty had been the pin-up artist of choice in the pages of Esquire, but Smart found him tiresome and demanding to work with. Petty was altogether too shrewd a businessman, so Smart sought someone who was as good with the paintbrush but not nearly so good at interpreting contracts. He found his ideal match in Alberto Vargas, who had been suffering from quite a few lean years during the Depression, and who was ecstatic to receive not only work but appreciation for the kind of work he wanted to do.

A typical Varga Girl image, a woman in a sailor's uniform reclining in a seductive pose.

The first Varga Girl appeared in the October 1940 issue of Esquire, a little over a year before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The feature proved immediately and immensely popular, prompting Smart to begin a program of relentless exploitation. Esquire contracted with Vargas to produce a prodigious amount of work each year, and ran a calendar of twelve Vargas paintings only two months after his debut in the magazine.

From 1942 to 1945, Smart distributed over three million copies of Esquire to domestic military installations free of charge, selling another six million copies (without advertising) to troops overseas. The Varga Girl calendar would become an annual release throughout the war years, selling in the millions. Vargas became the premier pin-up artist of the World War Two era, a cultural phenomenon intimately connected with the times, whose work appeared in barracks worldwide, as well as on the noses of American airplanes.

It was widely suggested, perhaps even widely believed, that these images raised the morale of American soldiers overseas — reminded them of what they were fighting for back home. Vargas and Esquire reinforced this notion by presenting Varga Girls as brides, or bedecked in patriotic imagery, or posed with various military props — medals, uniforms, letters from home, army instruction books, and so forth. The images were often accompanied by some bit of verse or prose about heartfelt topics like peace, love, or Christmas.

And yet, as World War Two veteran Kurt Vonnegut points out in his brilliant foreword to a catalog of Vargas’s Esquire work, the notion of these images as morale-raisers doesn’t withstand much scrutiny. They bore little resemblance to the average American wife, mother, or sweetheart, and their net effect, if not their intention, was just “to make horny youths far from home hornier — to what end we can only speculate.”

Vonnegut suggests instead that what the Varga Girls represent is more akin to images from the Sears Roebuck catalog:

If I am right, the pinups of World War Two had the generalized appeal of merchandise, implied fixed prices and order forms. The fantasy: You really could buy one if you had the bucks, and you just might have the bucks someday. The paper woman in the girdle and bra, if you were a man, seemed as much in your power as the socket-wrench set or the level-winding fishing reel.

In other words, Vargas’s art and Esquire‘s use of it contributed to the cultural commodification of women during World War Two, and here we can return to Sally Jupiter at last.

“I’m sitting ON it!”

Sally states clearly, in the supplemental material to Chapter 9, that her career as Silk Spectre “was never a sex thing. It was a money thing.” Hollis Mason concurs, in Under The Hood, saying that Sally “was probably the first of us ever to realize that there could be commercial benefits in being a masked adventurer. The Silk Spectre used her reputation as a crimefighter primarily to make the front pages and receive exposure for her lucrative modeling career…”

Sally, with the eager assistance of her agent and later husband Laurence Shexnayder, created her image in order to sell it, during the same era in which the Varga Girls rose to prominence. It’s no wonder Vargas painted her — in a way, they were both in the same line of work. They sold fantasy images of women, turning the desires of “horny youths” into cash.

Though the Esquire Varga Girls were anonymous, Vargas painted lots of portraits of living stars, especially during his studio days in the 1930s. Even in the 40s, during the height of his Esquire work, he did portraits of Jane Russell and Ava Gardner. The notion that he’d have painted Silk Spectre during that time is totally plausible. Like those movie bombshells, Sally Jupiter was an object of desire, and she and Shexnayder did their level best to rake in earnings from the people who slobbered over her.

Sally makes no bones about any of this, recounting every “bright blue gag” about herself back to Nite Owl, and joking about the moneymaker her body has been for her, as in the intermittent voice balloons that drift over to Laurie in a flashback that takes place at Sally’s house:

Panels 4 and 5, page 11, chapter 9 of Watchmen. In panel 4 Laurie is drying off from a workout, hearing voices come through the door, including Sally's: "...ell, as for me... what I achieved... sitting in it... and as... what I achieved it with..." Panel 5 shows us Sally continuing, as Laurie walks into the room with her, Nelson, and Hollis: "I'm sitting on it! HA HA HA!"

And so she did, though like Alberto Vargas, she and Laurence don’t always seem to have had the greatest dealmaking acumen. Though she certainly lives in a nice enough house (at least, after divorcing Shexnayder), the film deal they make devolves from a documentary, into a children’s adventure serial, into a “B” action movie, and finally into something “too awful even to be dignified with the term ‘pornography.'”

The journey taken by the Silk Spectre biopic defines a continuum, with “classy” exploitation at one end and purely crass exploitation at the other. In Sally’s apartment, those two extremes get represented by the Varga portrait on one end, and the Tijuana bible on the other. And while Sally might prefer to be on the classy end, she makes it clear that she doesn’t mind the other end so much either, because it’s not a dignity thing, it’s a money thing. (“Listen, those things are valuable, like antiques. Eighty bucks an’ up.”)

Sally learns, in her career as a “big tough super-lady”, that her value resides in her body and her sexuality. Her function, as a woman, was more or less to be a Varga Girl: erotic and innocent at once, distant and accessible at once, glamorous and vulnerable at once, and all available for sale everywhere. Merchandise.

The Essence That Was So Divine

When she turns on Laurie at the end of the scene, Sally reveals that this view extends beyond herself. “At least I don’t sleep with an H-Bomb,” she says, and when Laurie objects that Jon is not an H-Bomb, she continues: “Honey, the only difference is that they didn’t have to get the H-Bomb laid every once in a while.” In Sally’s eyes, that’s Laurie’s job, her function as a woman: get the H-Bomb laid. She’s as much a morale-raiser as any Esquire gatefold. (And though she protests that Sally is “being totally unfair”, Laurie herself is stuck in a story where her main function is to change the state of male characters.)

Sally Jupiter’s morale-raising days are in the past, though. Her world is “the city of the dead” because the thing that gave her meaning and value has departed with age. Bitterness has replaced allure, and now her refuge is in her memories, a past that gets just keeps on getting brighter all the time.

In other words, nostalgia. Or rather, perhaps, Nostalgia, because there’s someplace else in the Watchmen world where Varga-esque images appear, and that’s in Adrian Veidt’s ad campaign for his “Nostalgia line of ladies’ and men’s cosmetics.” He describes the woman in the ad, but may as well be describing a Varga Girl: “overtly erotic, yet layered with enough romantic ambiance to avoid offense.” She’s wearing more clothing than the typical Varga Girl, but the gauzy, transparent dress that hangs down from her torso, revealing and obscuring her thigh at once is pure Vargas, as is her pose and knowing stare out of the frame, returning the viewer’s gaze with amusement.

A cropped image from page 31, chapter 10 of Watchmen. From the supplemental material to the chapter, this is a sample Nostaliga ad, a woman pulling her stocking down while wearing a gauzy nightgown. The caption above her reads "Oh, how the ghost of you clings..."

Ozymandias, while watching his bank of randomly changing screens, muses about the “erotic undercurrent not uncommon in times of war,” and notes in his ad strategy that “when the present seems unstable and the future unlikely, the natural response is to retreat and withdraw from reality, taking recourse either in fantasies of the future or in modified visions of a half-imagined past.” Vargas’s painted ladies might belong to either, smooth fantasy women adorned in furs and flowers, who all find themselves in a half-imagined climate so warm that they’re constantly shedding clothes. It’s hard to say whether they seemed nostalgic at the time of their highest popularity, but at the very least they represented a yearning for simplicity and pleasure that must have felt distant indeed for soldiers deployed throughout the globe. Vargas’s work certainly drips with nostalgia now, especially for those, like Vonnegut, who lived through the 1940s.

The primary caption for Nostalgia advertisements reaches back even further, to the 1930s. “Oh, how the ghost of you clings” is a quote from the song “These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You)”, a hit song from 1936 that was covered by multiple people that year, including Leslie Hutchinson, Benny Goodman, and Billie Holiday. Here’s one of my favorite versions, from Bryan Ferry in 1973:

Once again, multiple layers of nostalgia are present here. The song itself is about the pain of lost love, when every element of your life can feel like a reminder of what’s gone out of it. “The ghost of you” here is made of all the simple little things that evoke the departed lover, including the lingering scent of perfume. Beyond that, the use of this caption in a 1985 ad campaign quite consciously hearkens back to a bygone era, that mythical “simpler time” that itself is the object of little-n nostalgia. That clinging ghost is the old songs, the old styles, the old times that feel so distant, especially when the present time is full of “global uncertainty.”

More than that, though, within the story, pertaining to the specific characters, when a bottle of Nostalgia appears, so do the clinging ghosts of the past. Obviously it takes a starring role in Chapter 9, appearing in close-up on the cover and shattering the Martian castle in the issue’s climactic moment. There, the ghost is the circumstances of Laurie’s birth, come back to haunt her after years of suppression.

In the opening scene of Chapter 2, that same ghost is at work, though we don’t know it yet. In addition, we get ghosts of other kinds. Sally gazes at her picture of the Minutemen, remembering how the dark and bright parts of the past brought her to where and who she is today. That picture, the Tijuana bible, and the Varga portrait on the wall surround her with ghosts of her former self — departed desire, eroticism, vitality. Most of all, she and Laurie are haunted by their shared past, the tension between them a product of thousands of interactions, behavior itself driven by experiences reaching back generations, like any complicated relationship between parent and child. Those ghosts do cling, and sometimes nostalgia is the optimal outcome, far better anyway than bitterness and toxicity.

Last, and deepest, is the kind of nostalgia that Watchmen itself set out to explode, the decades-long attachment of comics fans to the same superheroes and superhero tropes iterated over and over and over again. Those fanboy fantasies were as surprisingly fragile as Doctor Manhattan’s Martian castle, and this book was the bottle hurled at them. It marked a turning point, taking us to a new vantage from which we could see those Golden, Silver, and Bronze age comics as innocent and problematic in their own way as the Varga Girls seem now.

Album Assignments: 461 Ocean Boulevard

Summer’s here, and the time is right for an album like 461 Ocean Boulevard. This record has always felt like a sunny day to me, and I paid attention in this assignment to figure out why.

It helps a lot that Eric Clapton evokes the other artist who’s always felt like summer to me: Bob Marley. Clapton’s cover of “I Shot The Sheriff” is smoother and more laid-back than Marley’s original, which isn’t to say it doesn’t lilt and swing. The story in the song is a rather grim one, really, but you’d never know it from Clapton’s tone. He sounds like he’s recounting events from a long, safe distance away, much more so than Marley ever did. And he sounds like he’s having a great time retelling the story of his daring escape, all the while defending his adherence to a code of honor.

Similarly somber lyrically, but far less mellow musically, is “Motherless Children.” These lyrics return again and again to the downbeat theme: “your mother is dead.” But where the music could be a slow, sad blues, instead we get a funky and danceable beat and Clapton’s best riff on the album. I know the song is about orphans, but it is undeniably, irrepressibly joyful and fun, a strange combination that somehow works. It’s so fun, in fact, that it once served as the theme song to a comedy show, HBO’s 1980s Daily Show predecessor, Not Necessarily The News. It’s absolutely the kind of song that would blast from the speakers at a barbecue, its toe-tapping rhythm weaving around good times in the sun.

Album cover for 461 Ocean Boulevard

Those two songs are the most energetic on the album — much of the rest of the set is laid back, way back. Take “Let It Grow”, for example. This is more like the evening conversation after most of the party guests have left, and a few close friends sit on the deck under the warm stars. Clapton pitches his vocal so soft that he’s almost whispering in parts, and where the verses feel like musing, the choruses feel like prayer. Clapton released this album after three years in the hell of heroin addiction, and his exhortations to organic emotional roots feel heartfelt and hard-earned.

“Please Be With Me” isn’t quite so pleading (ironically) as “Let It Grow”, but it’s similarly introspective and hopeful. A glowing evocation of relationship devotion, it’s always been one of my favorites on the album. Clapton mixes nimble (but never showy) acoustic fingerpicking with lovely dobro accents, and Yvonne Elliman provides the sweetest harmonies throughout the song, especially on the chorus.

Elliman is kind of a secret weapon, or sometimes not so secret, throughout this album. She’d go on to a meteoric late-Seventies solo career in adult contemporary and disco hits, but on this album she finds a natural place in each soothing groove, managing to sound earthy and angelic by turns, or sometimes all at once. Her peak is probably in “Get Ready”, a duet with Clapton in which she upends his “I been cheated on” narrative, retorting that she’s just out for revenge following his own “sinful” actions, and taunting him with, “you’ve got a lot of nerve… waggling your piece of meat.” But again, where the music could be fierce and angry, it’s instead calm and leisurely.

I tend to respond more to lyrics most of the time, but for me it is pretty much always the music that sets the mood of 461 Ocean Boulevard. It’s not as if the album is stuffed with Beach Boy-esque lyrics about surfing, driving, and girls, but every track mixes warm instrumentation, relaxed vocals, and expansive rhythms to encompass every good mood, even when those moods stand in direct contrast to the lyrics.

The truth is, the lyrics don’t matter that much on this album. On some of the songs, like “Give Me Strength,” they reinforce the feeling of the music, but much of the time they’re more like “Mainline Florida”, which is about… I guess a relationship or something? It’s hard to say and it doesn’t make much difference, because the song isn’t really about a relationship, it’s about an easygoing riff, undergirded by smooth drums and cool harmonies, sweeping up above the waves and gliding elegantly back down.

The words could be about hand motions, for all the difference it makes. In fact, sometimes the words are about hand motions. “Willie And The Hand Jive” is maybe the summeriest song on the whole album. Clapton has a talent for making music without sounding like he’s trying, and this one sounds like it’s just wafting up into the air effortlessly. It’s the perfect emblem of 461 Ocean Boulevard — it feels good, it’s fun, it’s relaxed, and it’s the perfect accompaniment to a summer’s day.

Album Assignments: Hot Fuss

Album sequencing is a funny thing nowadays. The MP3 era has taken us back to a world where the track is king. It’s so easy to shuffle an album, or an artist, or an entire library, be it on an iPod, Spotify, YouTube, whatever, that the notion of a meticulously structured and ordered album feels like it belongs to a bygone era. Hot Fuss came out just as the iPod’s popularity was exploding — it’s part of that era’s last gasp.

Here’s why the sequencing on Hot Fuss is important: The Killers very conveniently ordered the entire album in descending order of awesomeness, traversing a spectrum from mind-blowing to mildly annoying. “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” is the explosive, electrifying opener, with the most badass bass line on the album. Part of what makes the song so incredible is that it’s our first exposure to the Killers’ sound, a thrilling combination of crunchy rhythm section, towering riffs, Eighties synth flourishes, and the high-drama glam vocals of Brandon Flowers. Every line Flowers sings on this song feels like it’s being ripped out of him, careening from plea to confession to sinister threat. Robby and I have talked a lot about debut albums, but not as much about debut songs — the first track on a debut album. I would make the case for “Jenny” as one of the most intense first songs ever.

If “Mr. Brightside” isn’t quite on that level, it’s only a tiny notch below. Unlike many Killers songs, this one has a cohesive narrative, all hung around the images swirling through the head of the jealous narrator. Again, Flowers’ vocals keep the whole thing at a heightened pitch of emotion while also maintaining just a bit of ironic distance, as the urgent drums drive the track onward relentlessly. This was the Killers’ only Top Ten hit, and it absolutely deserved all the popularity it had and more.

Album cover for Hot Fuss

With “Smile Like You Mean It”, the first tiny flaws begin to show. I mean, everything great is still there — a spooky synth riff, Edge-like guitar underpinnings, a hi-hatty drum part that bookends the chorus with big booms — but… “smile like you mean it”? It makes sense on its own, I guess, as a chiding reminder about sincerity, but the verses seem weirdly disconnected from the concept, or really any concept. The bridge brings back a little of Mr. Brightside’s jealousy, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

“Somebody Told Me” goes even further into lyrical incoherence. Possibly there’s something deep going on here that I can’t find, but it sure sounds like the story of a guy whose ex(?) is going out with somebody who looks like his own ex, which bears repeating over and over again because…? Sure, musically, still incredible — Flowers has a fantastic gift for making just about anything sound like it’s the most important thing in the world, and the mix pulls off a perfect synergy between powerhouse drums, jagged guitar, and brisk synth fills, but the words just don’t hold up here.

That’s nothing, though, compared to the incomparable nonsense that comprises the thesis statement of “All These Things That I’ve Done.” The Killers would summit the peak of Bizarro Lyric Mountain a few years later with “Are we human or are we dancer?”, but repeating “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” makes for a hell of a warmup. It’s not just the repetition — the song builds and builds, literally adding a gospel choir at the end, as if to impart great meaning to the line, but really… “I got soul but I’m not a soldier”? Are soldiers known for having a lot of soul? Does having soul make somebody assume you’re a soldier? What the hell do these words have to do with each other besides phonic similarity?

Let’s think of those first five songs as Side One of Hot Fuss. From there, the record settles into a groove of good-not-great, a solid B full of songs that have their kicks along with their head-scratchers. “Change Your Mind” is the last of these, and then we drop another notch with “Believe Me Natalie” into a couple songs whose music doesn’t quite compensate for their vacuity.

Finally, “Everything Will Be Alright” delivers almost six minutes of droning, Cure-wannabe dirge, whose attempts at reassurance fall flat in the face of its seasick swirling synths and trite mantras. Flowers’ voice, which previously could at least partially redeem even the silliest words, here gets distorted out of its ability to deliver emotion. The song isn’t terrible, but boy, it wears on me.

But luckily, I listened to this album on repeat, so as this subpar song dragged on and my impatience rose, suddenly Mark Stoermer’s kick-ass bass line on “Jenny Was A Friend Of Mine” would reappear, and The Killers were awesome again.

Album Assignments: Ten

Did you ever mishear a lyric, then find out about the real one, and still like yours better? I was all set for this post to talk about a great lyric from “Once”, the opening song on Pearl Jam’s Ten. That lyric turns out to actually be: “I’ve got a bomb in my temple that is gonna explode / I got a sixteen gauge buried under my clothes.” Still a good lyric, sure. But what I heard, and have been hearing for 27 years, is “I got a sixteen gauge buried under my nose.”

Okay, now wait, stop laughing. It does sound silly, now that I write it down. But to me it was this great poetic image, sitting uncertainly between the notion of the narrator’s mouth as a deadly weapon and an actual weapon pointed into his mouth. Though, now that I do a little research it’s clear how much I’m not a gun guy, because a sixteen gauge is a shotgun, not exactly the most convenient weapon of choice for suicide.

In any case, I believed the line wholeheartedly, despite the possible comedy, and I can chalk that up to the intensely committed singing of Eddie Vedder. Vedder is a revelation on this debut album, a voice that can start in a profound baritone register and ascend growling to intense peaks, only to lay bare moments of unexpected tenderness, such as the searching title question in “Why Go”, or the “Is something wrong” bridge of “Alive.” What shines through at every single moment is emotional truth — it is impossible to doubt that he means what he’s singing. Each line is fully, thrillingly inhabited. No wonder I didn’t bat an eye at the “nose” line I heard.

Album cover of Ten

What I didn’t realize until I researched this album is how separate Vedder was from the creation of Ten‘s music. I’m used to a model where lead singers are also lead songwriters, or are at least crucial contributors to the music. But Pearl Jam on this album was more in the Elton John/Bernie Taupin mode, except backwards — where John/Taupin start with lyrics then add music, Pearl Jam’s music came first. Stone Gossard and Jeff Ament had written a bunch of instrumental compositions, recorded them with Mike McCready on lead guitar and Matt Cameron on drums, then shopped the resulting tape around looking for singers. The tape made its way to Vedder, he wrote lyrics and sang, and the rest is history.

That music, though, is the other magic ingredient of Ten. As great as Vedder’s singing and lyrics are, they’re built atop an amazing foundation of melodicism, musicianship, and tunecraft. When I think of “Alive”, the first thing I hear in my head is that initial guitar riff. The bedrock of “Even Flow” is the melody Vedder sings, but its electric power comes from the hammering guitar that leads into the luminous solo. “Jeremy” is built on a bass line that opens the song like the first line of a novel — instantly intriguing, drawing us into its world.

That world feels quite a bit different now than it did in 1991. As chilling as “Jeremy” is, there are ways in which it feels a bit quaint now. School shootings (and everywhere-else shootings) have become so frequent, almost routine, that the notion of a deep character study into the mind of the shooter seems beside the point. Who has time to imagine all those troubled minds? There’s an army of Jeremys now, each with a soldier’s firepower.

Except the army isn’t really of Jeremys, because Jeremy of the song shoots only himself, at least based on Vedder’s description of his inspiration, and the unedited version of Mark Pellington’s video. Sure, it’s still shocking and horrifying, but not the way it was 27 years ago. Now, strange as it is to say, I think I’d feel a bit of relief hearing about someone carrying a gun to school and shooting only himself.

The dark places are all over this album, with very little relief. Some of it is social, as in “Even Flow”, “Why Go”, and “Jeremy”. Much of it is personal, as in “Once”, “Porch”, and “Release.” Heartbreak deeply etches “Black” and “Garden”, and “Deep” is redolent with upsetting images. There’s light at the center of “Alive” — it’s an affirmation of survival despite intense psychological trauma. Besides that, “Ocean” is really the only song with much uplift in its lyrics, as simple as they are.

It’s depressing stuff. So why does this album feel like an exultation? Again I think it’s down to that incredible alchemy of brilliantly written music and extraordinary vocal performances. Pearl Jam overflows with power as a band — tight rhythms, slashing guitars, intricate counterpoints that lift out of the record’s overall muddy production. Place Vedder’s sensational voice atop that foundation, and you’ve got a recipe to reach the stars.

This is one of those times when an album’s cover perfectly encapsulates one of its themes. We see Pearl Jam reaching for those stars, but doing it together, as a unit rather than a star and his backups. Give or take a revolving door of drummers, that unit has remained intact for almost thirty years now, and shows no sign of stopping. That’s light in the darkness too.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 23 – King Mob and Queen Mab

[As always, be thee warned that these posts contain spoilers for Watchmen.]

In December, DC Comics came out with a new book. No, I don’t mean the latest issue of Doomsday Clock, the comic in which it turns out there’s more story after Watchmen ended, and the story is that the characters go hang out with Batman and Superman. Nope. Like its predecessor series Before Watchmen, I consider Doomsday Clock to be basically fan fiction. I don’t mean that as pejoratively as maybe it sounds — there’s nothing wrong with fan fiction, and sometimes it can be a lot of fun. It might even be written well — certainly I admire some of the writers involved. But I just do not have time or space for it in this project, or in my life.

No, the book I’m referencing is called Watchmen Annotated. It’s by Leslie S. Klinger, and it could be called a prettier, hardbound, authorized, and more cohesive version of the amateur crowdsourced web annotations I’ve been using throughout this project. Many of the comments are substantively the same. But Klinger has a copy editor, access to sources (such as Moore’s scripts and Gibbons himself), and he’s a thorough researcher. That combination can work wonders sometimes.

Case in point, this panel:

Watchmen Chapter 2, page 5, panel 2. In the foreground are partial views of the heroes' trophies, and in the background they are emerging from a door, having finished with their photo shoot.

The web annotations gloss this as follows:

The sign on the left reads, “Moloch’s Solar Mirror Weapon”; the case on the right is “King Mob’s Ape Mask”. These are presumably trophies captured by the heroes from criminals. We will meet Moloch soon. We never see King Mob, but presumably his name is a play on the name “Queen Mab” (the fairy queen referred to by Shakespeare) and the notion of organized crime mob. [sic]

I thought this Queen Mab idea was a pretty clever connection, and one that had never occurred to me. But Klinger has something entirely different to say, and he waits to say it until the next page, when we actually see the ape mask labeled:

Watchmen chapter 2, page 6, panel 9. In the foreground is a glass case with a gorilla head inside, its mouth open and fangs bared. A sign under neath reads"King Mob's Ape Mask". In the background, we see the Comedian's gloved hand holding down a bare arm. A speech bubble comes from off-panel, reading "Sally? What's keeping you?", and a speech bubble comes from the other side of the panel, where the attack is happening, reading "GHUUCHH"

Klinger’s explanation is long, but here’s an excerpt:

The ape mask of King Mob, seen here in the Minutemen’s trophy room, is not explained in the story. The name King Mob, however, refers to a radical group of artists and provocateurs active in England in the 1960s and 1970s and known to Moore and Gibbons. An offshoot of the Situationist International movement, King Mob apparently took its name from a slogan painted on the wall of Newgate Prison during the Gordon Riots of 1790 — the rioters claimed the damage was done by His Majesty, King Mob.

One In Eight Go Mad

As Klinger points out, the definitive account of King Mob is a book called King Mob: A Hidden Critical History, written by David Wise in collaboration with Stuart Wise and Nick Brandt. You could get a Kindle edition of it, or a really expensive out-of-print paperback edition, but in keeping with the group’s militant art-should-be-free ethos, the entirety of the text is posted at a website called Revolt Against Plenty.

Reading through this text makes it patently clear that King Mob’s activities were an influence on Watchmen. For one thing, in one of the collective’s early exploits they really did use an ape suit. Children of working class families in the Notting Hill area of 1968 London had no place to play, and were getting knocked down by cars in the street. The green spaces of the neighborhood were fenced off and annexed by housing developments for the wealthy.

To disrupt the situation, King Mob decided to dress one of its members in a gorilla suit, and a couple of others in a two-man horse costume. The gorilla man took a hit of speed, changed into his costume in a pub lavatory, and shot out of there roaring into the street, to be joined by the horse and the rest of the collective, who exhorted the Saturday afternoon throngs to help them tear down the fences. They didn’t actually get them torn down — in fact they got arrested and went to court two days later still in costume. But a wave of sympathetic protests did follow the absurdist action, and a public park was established shortly thereafter in Powis Square, though by that time King Mob had lost interest, having little taste for what Wise calls “mealy-mouthed council machinations” and “institutionalised space.”

In any case, King Mob was no stranger to gorilla/guerilla actions, which makes the ape mask an even more outright reference to the collective than the use of its name alone implies. But there’s an even clearer connection between England’s King Mob and the world of Watchmen, as Klinger correctly identifies: some of the graffiti in Watchmen is almost a direct crib of something King Mob wrote in huge block letters, on a wall paralleling the track between two London tube stops. The King Mob graffiti reads:


Image of King Mob graffiti as described above

Compare this to the graffiti seen multiple places in Watchmen, which boils down the message and intensifies it to “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD”:

Cropped panel from Watchmen chapter 1, page 24, panel 1. Rorschach walking in front of a fence painted with graffiti. I've added a box to highlight the "One in eight go mad" graffiti.

Klinger speculates that the increased ratio of madness has to do with a greater psychological pressure in the Watchmen universe than in ours, but the fact of King Mob’s mask showing up in a Minutemen flashback makes me wonder if there’s a simpler explanation to be found. There were in fact eight Minutemen: Captain Metropolis, The Comedian, Dollar Bill, Hooded Justice, Mothman, Nite Owl, The Silhouette, and Silk Spectre. And one of them did indeed go mad: as Sally mentions, “poor Byron Lewis” (aka Mothman) is “in the bughouse in Maine.”

This character flits around the edges of the Watchmen story. We see his wings bugging The Comedian in 1940, and we get Hollis Mason in Under The Hood mentioning that “the man behind the mask and wings of Mothman… has been committed to a mental institution after a long bout of alcoholism and a complete mental breakdown.” We hear that Dan Dreiberg spends some time “visiting a sick acquaintance at a hospital in Maine on behalf of a mutual friend.”

Mothman’s most significant appearance is in a Chapter 9 flashback, in which Laurie remembers a Minutemen reunion attended by Lewis. He’s clearly a wreck — frightened, incoherent, and minded by two caretakers who ensure that he drinks “just a club soda.” In the context of the chapter, the point of the appearance seems to be to provoke Laurie’s reaction: “Jesus, is that what I’m training for? What I got to look forward to?” It underscores her reluctance to follow in her mother’s footsteps, furthers Moore’s project of deglamorizing the superhero life, and validates the “one in eight” graffiti. And of course it contributes to the conversation between Laurie and Jon on Mars, debating whether there’s a point to human struggle.

But aside from all that, it is also the strongest example of madness in Watchmen, and madness was a significant topic for King Mob. Wise claims that “the dialectic of madness” was the common theme in the group’s first and most widely distributed magazine, King Mob Echo: “going mad with freedom; of breakdown as breakthrough; of disintegration as prelude to a new unity, or as justification for previous ‘mad’ interventions via the rantings of King Mob and with further actions coming your way soon.” They certainly used the threat of madness in their tube graffiti, as the consequence of a life spent in proletariat complacency.

Looking at Byron Lewis, though, Watchmen would seem to be making the opposite case. Lewis didn’t go mad because he spent his days in repetitive drudgery. On the contrary, he made himself wings and a moth costume, then hit the streets to fight crime, which is about as far from “ARMCHAIR — TV — SLEEP” as you could get. It’s never made quite clear what causes his breakdown, though there’s a strong hint in Under The Hood that being investigated by the House Un-American Activities Committee started his downward spiral. We also see him as a fearful person in every scene where he speaks, which would suggest that he self-medicated with alcohol for anxiety that was present even before his HUAC ordeal. It seems clear that costumes and vigilantism didn’t help him, despite the English King Mob’s prescription of costumes and vigilantism to disrupt what Wise calls “this grotesque society.”

Our world’s King Mob was militantly opposed to the status quo, the “impossible society.” As I’ve touched on several times in this project, superheroes are militant defenders of the status quo. So it stands to reason that Watchmen‘s King Mob would oppose the Minutemen. By the look of their trophy room, it seems the status quo won the day, just as it did (for the most part) over the real King Mob. Much of Wise’s text has a heartbroken quality, mourning the painful failure of a utopian dream.

If the use of King Mob’s name in Watchmen is social commentary, then it’s commentary aimed at Brits. American audiences would see “mob” and think of organized crime, as the web annotations demonstrate. Their closest association between “King” and ape would be King Kong. There’s a point to be made here. Watchmen may be set in New York, and published by an American comics company, but its writer, artist, and colorist are all English, with a distinctly British set of cultural reference points. American readers like me, who lack that cultural context, are inevitably going to miss some things, and get others wrong.

This King Mob reference is a big case in point, but there are smaller ones too. I ran across a sentence in Wise’s text which seemed to jump out as a Watchmen reference: “How could so many women with a sure sense of what mattered end up as public school head mistress [sic] like Phillippa D’Eath?” D’Eath?? I thought “Red D’Eath” (the lead singer of Watchmen-world band Pale Horse) was a particularly silly rock pseudonym, albeit a literary one in a way I’m sure to investigate in a future post. The notion that there was a Phillippa D’Eath, who may have been associated with King Mob, was enough to make me sit up straight.

Watchmen chapter 7, page 15, panel 4. A talk show host is in the foreground, saying "...and with the eleven o'clock news coming up next, that's all we have time for. So from me, Benny Anger, and Pale Horse's Red D'eath, it's thank you and good night." A surly knot-topped rock star smokes and glares in the background.

Well, some focused Googling showed me that not only is there indeed a Phillippa D’Eath living in London, there is in fact quite a contingent of D’Eaths. None named Red, but still — as an American the surname sounds purely invented to me, while in Britain it’s not unknown. As the web annotations point out, “De’Ath” is even more common, though still relatively uncommon overall. How many other UK touchstones have I missed or misunderstood? I suppose all I can do is rely on the annotations. Now that there are two sets, perhaps my chances have improved.

Nothing But Vain Fantasy

Speaking of that first set, while it seems clear that King Mob’s ape mask referenced the radical anti-art group, what about that Queen Mab connection? Who knows what may or may not have been in Moore’s head, but the odds seem against a Queen Mab reference now that we know about England’s real King Mob. Still, due to the fact that I started researching this post in November and didn’t lay eyes on Klinger’s book until after Christmas, I ended up spending a couple of months learning about Queen Mab. And while it may just be another Rorschach blot, I found some interesting connections to explore.

First of all, the web annotations say that Queen Mab is “referred to by Shakespeare”, but what they don’t mention is that Shakespeare in fact invented her. Researchers have identified a few faint leads as possible sources for her legend, but the first recorded mention we have of Queen Mab is in Romeo and Juliet. References proliferate after that, including an extended treatment by Percy Shelley, another poet who looms large in the landscape of Watchmen references due to his poem “Ozymandias.” In Shelley’s Queen Mab poem, he rails extensively against a number of things, most prominently religion, marriage, meat-eating, and the monarchy & peerage. In fact, the poem’s pro-labor, anti-aristocracy sentiments are quite in line with the ethos of the 20th century King Mob.

In Shelley’s poem, Queen Mab is a fairy who serves as a sort of tour guide to the universe, displaying a catalog of human misery, along with pointers about how it could be ended. In Shakespeare, though, the fairy is more mischievous. She’s the subject of an extended monologue by Romeo’s friend Mercutio, who first describes in detail her tiny size and accoutrements — she’s “no bigger than an agate stone / on the forefinger of an alderman”, her driver the size of a gnat, her chariot an empty hazelnut, et cetera. He then recites a long list of her activities, which seem to be centered on bringing apt dreams into the heads of all humans she encounters — lawyers dream of fees, soldiers dream of cutting throats, courtiers dream of curtsies, and of course lovers dream of love.

Mercutio’s usual mode is devilish teasing and mockery, and the Queen Mab speech starts out clearly in this vein. But as the speech continues, his tone gets darker, his imagery more grotesque, and his choice of words harsher and harsher, until Romeo interrupts him with a concerned, “Peace, peace, Mercutio, peace! / Thou talk’st of nothing.”

“True,” says Mercutio, “I talk of dreams, / Which are the children of an idle brain, / Begot of nothing but vain fantasy.” Here we have the crux of what upsets Mercutio. In the scene leading up to his Queen Mab speech, he is frustrated with Romeo, who is pining away bemoaning his love for Rosaline (this is before he meets Juliet), embodying every cliché of Renaissance courtly love. Mercutio correctly ascribes these sentiments to “vain fantasy” — Rosaline has no interest in Romeo, and the latter’s love-wounded posturing is mostly performance, albeit an infuriating one for his friends. (Some critics have also speculated that Mercutio himself has a frustrated homoerotic desire for Romeo.)

This repudiation of idle fantasy finds an echo in Watchmen, which sets out to deconstruct the innocent fantasies of the superhero genre, holding them up to the harsh light of reality and finding how tiny and frail some of their underpinnings really are. And just as in Romeo and Juliet, when dreams are dispelled, darkness rushes in. Romeo ends the Queen Mab scene with portentous words, presaging the play’s tragic ending: “my mind misgives / Some consequence, yet hanging in the stars… some vile forfeit of untimely death.”

Watchmen, chapter 2, page 6, panel 7. A shot of Moloch's solar mirror weapon, reflecting a distorted image of The Comedian kicking a prone Silk Spectre in the stomach.

Meanwhile, in Watchmen the tragedy plays out before us. As King Mob’s ape mask looks on, it sees a story that looks like Romeo and Juliet reflected in a distorted mirror.

The Angry Mab

Romeo and Juliet see each other at a party and, following a Renaissance theatrical convention, fall deeply, authentically, and instantly in love. Juliet’s cousin Tybalt recognizes Romeo as a member of the rival Montague family and wants to attack him, but is restrained by Lord Capulet’s insistence upon decorum. When the lovers first speak to each other, their words emerge as an interwoven sonnet of dialogue, immediately bonding them together. They hold hands, then kiss, treating the acts as sacred.

Contrast that against the scene between the Comedian and Silk Spectre in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. The party has broken up, and Eddie waits to confront Sally when they are both alone. He attempts to impose a narrative of instant attraction and desire upon her, insinuating that she announced she was changing in order to invite his attention, saying, “I know what you need,” and attempting to turn her refusal around: “Sure. No. Spelled Y, E…” Rather than weaving in with his dialogue, Sally interrupts and contradicts it: “Spelled enn oh!

Rather than holding his hand, she scratches his face, and rather than kiss her, The Comedian punches her, kicks her, and holds her face to the ground. The closest analog to Tybalt is Hooded Justice, who is allegedly Sally’s companion but “never seemed very interested in her.” — more of a kissing cousin. Nobody restrains him from attacking the faux-Romeo Comedian, though he’s taken aback by the Comedian’s insight, and falls short of following through on his threats. After a moment between Hooded Justice and Silk Spectre, the flashback ends. Queen Mab has turned into King Mob, who brings nightmares to lovers rather than dreams.

In his guide to Romeo and Juliet, Shakespeare scholar Jay L. Halio posits that a “dichotomy between youth and age is at the center of this play.” (pg. 39) The actions of the very young lovers are in defiance of the age-old feud between their families, and the consequences of that feud bring ruin upon their love affair. Such a dichotomy is also behind the Sally Jupiter scenes in chapter 2. Laurie and Sally clash with each other from different sides of their generation gap, and Sally contrasts her aged self, and her life in the “city of the dead”, to her memories of the forties. She talks about how “Eddie was the youngest. Always jokin’ about how old we all were. He said he’d bury us.” We even get a panel of the old, white-haired Sally standing in front of a portrait painted of her at her most young, vibrant, and sexy. (More on that in the next post…)

The flashback itself is to the youth of superheroics in the Watchmen world, a time when the costumed crusader fad was in full flower and the Minutemen were at their peak. The King Mob mask emphasizes this youth — it appears nowhere but in the 1940 flashback, and hearkens to trophy comics from our world’s Silver Age, classically the one in the Batcave.

A panel from a Silver Age Batman issue, showing Batman and Robin in the Batcave's trophy room, which includes things like a giant penny, a robotic dinosaur, and a huge Joker head. Caption: Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder enter the strangest room of their secret Batcave -- their great hall of trophies! Robin: Batman, this new trophy is our one thousandth! Batman: A thousand trophies -- and every one represents a souvenir from an important case

King Mob would seem to be the epitome of the “schmuck in a Halloween suit” type of villain that the Comedian references in a later flashback, from a more innocent time, before the superheroes found themselves fighting the public itself. Chapter 2’s own chronological progression of flashbacks is another contrast between youth and age, this time of the society itself. The Minutemen are Watchmen‘s Silver Age, inevitably supplanted by a grimmer, uglier version of themselves.

There’s one more parallel between Watchmen and Romeo and Juliet: their endings. In both the play and the comic, peace between rivals arises from the ashes of tragedy. In fact, there’s a radically abridged plot summary that could fit both works: “Some people have to die in order to quell a feud between two powerful clans.”

Halio asks, “Do these young lovers transcend their fate, achieving in death what might have been impossible had they lived…?” (pg. xi) Whether you see transcendence or just a tragedy that happens to have a nice side effect probably depends on how you see the world, but it seems clear in the text that Romeo and Juliet’s deaths (as well as the various other deaths in the story) permanently end the feud between Capulets and Montagues. Each patriarch pledges to raise a statue in gold of the other’s child, and they end the play hand in hand as the Prince pronounces “a glooming peace.”

The peace in Watchmen seems far more dubious, despite Ozymandias’s exultation. That’s because there’s a fundamental difference between these sacrificial achievements. The warring families are united by love, while the warring nations are united by fear. Northrop Frye in Anatomy of Criticism argues that tragedy contains “a mimesis of sacrifice.” (pg. 214) But where Romeo and Juliet chose their sacrifice, the New York victims did not, and this is likely to make the difference between a true restoration of the civil social peace and a false one. Again, Halio:

Except for its fatalities, [Romeo and Juliet] follows the standard form of New Comedy. The two lovers are kept apart by a powerful external authority (some form of parental opposition is typical) and much of the action concerns their efforts to get around the obstacles put in their path. Their ultimate union — in a marriage feast — results in a transformation of the society that opposed them. (pg. 28, note 3)

Romeo and Juliet have a marriage, but feast only upon poison and steel. Yet the society that opposed them truly is transformed. We see a transformed society at the end of Watchmen too — those last few pages show an extensive Russian influence in American society, “One World One Accord” posters, and Millennium replacing Nostalgia. We even get a sort of marriage, between Dan and Laurie.

But all is not well. The “EIGHT” in “ONE IN EIGHT GO MAD” has been crossed out and replaced with a “3”. Both the “marriage” and the transformation contain an inherent layer of deception that we sense cannot last. Dan and Laurie are living under assumed names, and she nervously glances out the window, not feeling safe hanging around any one place too long. And of course in the final panel, Seymour’s hand hovers over the evidence that could undo Veidt’s entire fraud.

In Romeo and Juliet, the lovers practice an equally farfetched fraud, but theirs fails. That scheme intends to avoid death, but tragically causes death instead, successfully ending the feud. Ozymandias’s scheme intends to cause death, and the extent to which it ends the “feud” between the US and USSR is deeply questionable. Tragedy is there in both works, but Watchmen has only a parody of the comedy. Again, it’s Romeo and Juliet in a funhouse mirror, with both King Mob and Queen Mab looking on. Where King Mob might seek respite in absurdity or innocence, the angry Mab flies onward, sowing dreams that fester into madness, and laughing, laughing, laughing as she goes.

Previous entry: Costumed Cut-Ups

Album Assignments: Déjà Vu

“One morning I woke up, and I knew you were really gone.” That’s the first line of Déjà Vu. It’s a painful image, pulling from a rich blues tradition of narrators whose lives crash down when they wake up. If you didn’t know any better, you might imagine this line sung plaintively, slowly, over mournful chords.

That’s not what Stephen Stills has in mind at all. From the first instant of “Carry On”, bright major-key acoustic guitars charge forward, and then three perfectly braided voices hit like a blast of sunshine. The lyrics, too, turn immediately away from the dolor of the first line: “A new day, a new way, and new eyes to see the dawn.”

Déjà Vu was recorded in the last half of 1969, that brief euphoric moment between Woodstock and Altamont, when it started to seem like the movement of a generation really might change the world. That sparkling optimism turns the devastation of a lover’s abandonment into an unexpected hallelujah: “Rejoice, rejoice, we have no choice but to carry on.”

Album cover from Deja Vu

The sunny spirit carries through both of Graham Nash’s contributions to the album, “Teach Your Children” and “Our House”. The former has to be one of the most hopeful songs ever written about the generation gap, laying out a vision in which children and parents thrive through mutual respect and unshakable love. It’s not just a beautiful song, it’s a beautiful idea, expressed with much the same forward-looking spirit as “Carry On” — “the past is just a goodbye.” This is obviously a far cry from how many families operate — then and now — but Nash seems to be saying, “This is how it could be. Don’t you want that?”

“Our House” is less bold but just as sweet, limning a gentle domestic moment in another house full of love. Nash’s dulcet voice always takes the high parts when CSN sing in harmony, and his lead vocal here embodies warmth and comfort. Listening to the song, it’s almost impossible not to feel uplifted, unless you’re the sort of person who gets enraged by other people’s bliss. The scene was apparently inspired by his real domestic situation at the time, living with Joni Mitchell and her two cats, a perfect crystalline moment of happiness at home.

We also have Mitchell to thank for the album’s biggest hit, “Woodstock.” But where her original was quiet and contemplative, Neil Young and his guitar turn this version into a jagged, soaring powerhouse. It’s probably the peak of the album’s optimism too, what with the bomber death planes turning into butterflies and all. CSNY make an excellent choice to integrate the “billion year old carbon” and “caught in the devil’s bargain” lines better into the whole song — where in Mitchell’s version they almost seem like throwaways, here they anchor the chorus every time, along with the magic harmonies swirling into the sky. But it’s Young’s guitar, skittering over Taylor & Reeves’ funky rhythm section, and Stills’ emotional vocal, that makes this cover feel so vital and unforgettable.

But for all the joy that suffuses this album, there’s a dark undertow too. Where “Carry On” and “Woodstock” give us a Stills bouncing with hope for the future, “4 + 20” tells a different story altogether — he’s so heartbroken that he wishes he was dead. That’s not somebody who feels he has no choice but to carry on. Like Adele at 25, he’s a very young person who feels very old in this song.

Young delivers a better version of this ache in his lovely standout track “Helpless.” Where Stills’ account of depression delivers a straightforward narrative of loneliness, Young combines a sweet nostalgia for the past with a deeply stricken portrait of how he feels today. Where CSN’s vocal blend often feels uplifting, in this song it amplifies the sad lyric’s poignancy into an almost sobbing despair.

But still, these two songs aside, this is an album with hope for the future, or even the past. Crosby’s title track invokes the notion of past lives as a kind of key to the present, and hopes that what he learns this time around will guide him on what to do next time. (Little did he know back then just how much he’d have to learn this time around.) “Almost Cut My Hair” casts him as a soldier in the resistance, his tresses a “freak flag” for others to rally ’round.

And finally, there’s “Everybody I Love You.” As in the beginning, those gorgeous perfect harmonies reach out to embrace the whole world, the whole future. Once the song transitions from its funky beginning to its final choir of angels, the awesome stop-start technique that works so powerfully in “Woodstock” comes back to carry us into counterculture heaven. CSNY wouldn’t always love everybody, nor in fact even each other, but for that moment I believe them, and boy does it feel good.

Postscript: Listening to this album on repeat made me revisit a couple of other favorites, and I felt so connected to them that they feel like they belong here. First, Weird Al’s absolutely note-perfect CSNY parody, which is also a perfect satire of corporate buzzwords:

And finally k.d. lang’s absolutely heartrending version of “Helpless”, used to devastating effect at the end of the movie Away From Her:

Geek Bowl XII answer recap

Here now, the Geek Bowl XII answers!

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Geek Bowl XII question recap

I’ve been immersed in the trivia world for a while now, and I think it’s safe to say that Geek Bowl has become the premier team trivia event in America. I’m open to counterexamples if somebody wants to take issue with that statement, but for my money there is nothing else that matches the scale, ambition, and sheer quality of the show that Geeks Who Drink puts on every year for trivia teams. I come from an area with a rich trivia bowl tradition, but at this point I think Geek Bowl has surpassed the CU Trivia Bowl even at its height. It’s obviously a completely different format, so perhaps that’s not a useful comparison, but in any case I remain spellbound by the excellent writing, smooth logistics, and stellar production values of this event, not to mention the ever-increasing cash prizes.

All those factors have made Geek Bowl an annual destination for elite teams of players, so much so that for the first time this year, the Geeks instituted a special “amateur prize” for the highest placing team containing no previous Geek Bowl winners, and nobody who has won more than $10,000 on a TV game show. The team that won that prize this year came in… ninth. And it turns out even that was an error — the team had a guy who’s won $85K on Jeopardy!. They’re still figuring out the real top amateur team, AFAIK.

Championship banners from previous Geek Bowls, including The Anti-Social Network's win in Geek Bowl V and How I Met Your Mothra in Geek Bowl VIII

My own team came in 6th place this time around, and we weren’t eligible for the amateur prize because we happen to be previous Geek Bowl winners ourselves. In fact, four of us were also on the team that won Geek Bowl V. Although we weren’t in the money this year, we felt very pleased with our standing, especially seeing that we came out above a couple other previous winners. (Well, tied with them really, but apparently we got closer on the tiebreaker question. More on that later.) Sixth place out of 231 teams is a performance to be proud of, methinks. We certainly felt a lot better than last year, in which some venue flaws, some missed coin flips, and a badly blown round made for a much more disappointing night.

Those venue flaws were nowhere to be found this year. Boston’s Agganis Arena was a great place for a Geek Bowl — tons of space, clear sight lines, excellent audio, and a fine layout. (Though once again I feel for the teams who had to sit in the fixed arena seats rather than at a table. I salute you, arena seat teams!) Boston itself was a surprise location — the first time a Geek Bowl has been east of the Mississippi — but a great town and a fun, albeit expensive, destination. The Geeks took full advantage of the area’s rich lore when setting up round themes, but once again, more about that later. Cool as well is the fact that Geek Bowl XII was a fundraiser benefiting Artists For Humanity, a Boston nonprofit that employs teens to use their creativity in their communities.

Mothra’s Rules Of Pub Trivia

The year our team won, we were “How I Met Your Mothra”, and so now every year we find some Mothra variant for our name. This time around, as a nod to Boston, we were “Mothra’n A Feeling”. The full team was in town by Friday night, so we all got together at Roxy’s Grilled Cheese and Arcade to hang out, eat food, play video games, and get our heads pounded by SUPER loud music. Teammate Brian is podcast-famous, so the site doubled as a meetup for his listeners — a lovely friendly bunch.

The next day some team members did a bit of sightseeing, but it was cold and I was sleepy, so I opted out. Instead, I met the full team at a downtown theater to see Black Panther, which was AWESOME. Then it was over to a seafood place for some lobster-related lunches, followed by practice questions in a hotel lobby. Finally, we hiked it to the arena, where we found our table and performed the solemn yearly reading of 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. Likewise for punctuation.
  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.

These rules are not always easy to follow, but we’ve integrated them pretty deeply into our team dynamic, and I believe they’re an enormous help in keeping our little family functional. There can be quite a lot of pressure at Geek Bowl, what with challenging questions and merciless time limits. Ensuring that we’re functioning smoothly means we keep having fun through the whole thing rather than wiping out into anxiety or angst. Of course, it also helps to feel like you know a lot of answers, and we finished most of our rounds this year feeling pretty great, sometimes a little better than we turned out to have merited.

As much as I praise Geeks Who Drink for the amazing job they do on this event, my favorite part remains the experience of answering trivia questions with these five guys, who are funny, warm, and just really frickin’ smart. May I present Mothra’n A Feeling, bathed in the blue light of the pre-Bowl arena floor:

Team picture of Mothra'n A Feeling

From left, that’s Larry, George, me, Jonathan, Brian, and Don. As far as teamwork is concerned, we did exactly what we said we’d do this year. While it’s always easy to look back with regret at the answers we might have changed given sufficient time for discussion, I believe we played up to our potential just about the whole time.

The Geek Bowl Format

This is the part where I copy and paste the same explanations and disclaimers I include in this post every year, with a few alterations as appropriate. If you already know the drill, feel free to skip down to Opening Ceremonies. (Though note there is one big change: I have been provided with official question material this year. Woo!)

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. However, thanks to Geeks editor-in-chief Christopher Short, I have been supplied with question material this year. In the past these recaps have been based off notes, memories, and photos of question slides, but this time around I’ve got the official question wording! Huge thanks to Christopher for the help!

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 year, though, it feels like a corner was turned. While there were certainly f-bombs to be heard, and a question here or there about matters sexual, Geek Bowl for the first time in my memory did not contain its usual quota of raunch. Not coincidentally, I think this was the best Geek Bowl ever. I don’t have a problem with filth and profanity, or else I wouldn’t have kept coming back, but it’s lovely to feel like they’re no longer a compulsory part of the brand.

Here’s the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. (Excepting the aforementioned arena seat heroes, who had clipboards instead.) Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Two rounds are all-video, meaning that 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 round 3 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. (Though there was a bit of a spin on that this year, 16 points were still available in the round.) In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s usually only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, two other rounds offered additional points: 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, and we found out in play that 2 points were possible for each Round 6 question, for a total of 16 points available in that round.

Finally, a team 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. Our threshold for the music round was 14, and our Round 3 threshold was 13. Failing either of those, we knew we’d have no choice but to joker Round 8. (Or so we thought! It wasn’t apparent from the answer sheets that Round 6 was also a 16-point round.)

Opening Ceremonies

The night began with the American national anthem, sung by Irishman Ciarán Nagle. Then Geek Bowl’s first-ever female MC, Fort Collins quizmaster Jenna Riedi, took the stage for a funny number about how great it is to be in New York. She was interrupted at last by a stagehand whispering in her ear, after which she exclaimed, “We’re in Boston? Fuck!” After a couple more merry verses invoking a bunch of other cities, she dashed off with a “Be right back, I gotta go Google.” Nagle came back out, this time joined by his band ISHNA and some step-dancing quizmasters. After a few minutes, Riedi returned, this time fully bedecked in Boston sports gear, and finished up the musical comedy number with lots of Boston facts.

It was a more muted opening than many Geek Bowls have seen, but still lots of fun and well-crafted. After that, it was time for the questions! As usual, I’ll describe our experiences inside [square brackets], and provide the answers in a separate post.

I’ve noticed that ever since the Geek Bowl started traveling to non-Denver cities, the first round in a new city will often tie into the theme of that city in some way — questions about Austins in Austin, questions about dukes in the Duke City of Albuquerque, questions about sounds while on Puget Sound in Seattle.

This time, though, the Geeks outdid themselves with fully six Boston-themed rounds! But lest you think that gave undue advantage to the locals, read on. While the rounds may have been Boston-themed, the questions were as wide-ranging as ever. Take, for example, Round 1…

Round 1: Eight Quick Questions Not About The T

For those that don’t know, “The T” is Boston’s nickname for its fine subway system, and this question took inspiration from the stops on those lines. Every question contained the name of a T stop — I’ll bold and ALL-CAP the stop names.

1. You know him better by his honorific title, but QUINCY is the Christian name of what bumbling cartoon character who debuted in 1949? [George, our scribe for the night, knew this one right away. Off to a strong start!]
2. Because of one random, really loud G-major chord, Haydn’s 94th SYMPHONY is called by what name?
3. Though headquartered in New Jersey, some 3,600 miles west of there, the PRUDENTIAL Financial logo features what Pillar of Hercules?
4. RIVERSIDE, California is the hometown of what Arrested Development actor who also played a mean Drunk History Hamilton in 2016? [This one we were unsure of — took our best guess.]
5. Famous for a Cinderella run at the 2010 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, BUTLER University is in what Midwest capital city? [Thanks to Don and Larry, our sports guys, who were immediately atop this one.]
6. Simon BELMONT is a whip-wielding hero in what old-school Konami game series that got a Netflix show in 2017? [Thank god Brian plays video games. I mean, I do too, but only like one a year so I’m not much help.]
7. Which Alice in WONDERLAND character was name-dropped in Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit”: The Caterpillar or the Mad Hatter?
8. The 1886 HAYMARKET Affair and the 1968 DNC riots are two examples of those dang liberals getting into trouble in what city?

[We got 7 out of 8 on this round. Satisfactory!]
See the answers

Round 2: Letters, Not To Cleo

For the past several years, Geek Bowl has had a headlining musical act. This started in Albuquerque with The Dan Band, continued into Denver with Metalachi, and turned away from novelty acts in Seattle with Escort. This year, the band was the biggest yet — Boston’s own Letters to Cleo, who had a couple of cool modern rock hits in the 90s.

As is traditional, the headlining band not only played during intermissions, they also brought us the musical round. These rounds tend to be 8 covers, where you have to name the title and artist (for a point each), and the selections have some connection to the band — Metalachi played songs about metals, Escort did songs/artists that mention professions, etc. So we wondered if perhaps this round would be something like “songs about the mail”, or “songs with initials in the title.”

But when we looked at the answer sheet, it was clear that the Geeks had something much more creative up their sleeves. Instead of blanks for artist and title, this sheet had blanks for author and musical artist. You see, it turns out that for round 2, the Geeks took actual correspondence from famous people, and set it to music from popular songs. And in fact, each song related to the content of the letters, though I didn’t realize that until later. All these tunes were performed by Letters to Cleo, and our challenge was to name the authors and artists. It was a brilliant, amazing, and supremely creative round.

The Geeks have posted the video for this round, hallelujah! As you’ll see, they took a few liberties with the text of these letters in order to clue the questions a little better, and to fit the meter of the songs. Much appreciated! Word of warning that unlike in previous years, this year’s video has the answers included at the end of the clip. So if you’re reading through this post and playing along at home, you may want to pause there. I’ll link straight to that part in the answers post.

[Looking at our totals here, we believed we had 14. We nailed all the authors, and six of the artists. And so believing, we jokered the round. Only belatedly did we realize that one of the author answers we confidently handed in was, in fact, wrong. More about that in the answers post, but the upshot is we in fact had 13, which doubled to 26, bringing our total points to 33.]
See the answers

Round 3: Celtics vs. Bruins

Round 3 at Geek Bowl is pretty much always 50/50 — each answer is multiple choice, in which that multiple is two. Frequently, the 8th question is an 8-part speed round, in which teams have a set amount of time to provide 8 members of some category. We could see from the answer sheets that this year would be no exception.

In keeping with the Boston-themed questions, this year’s Round 3 paid tribute to a couple of Boston sports teams by framing 7 descriptions that either fit bears (hence the bruins) or Celts (hard-c Celts, early inhabitants of Britain). We were instructed clearly: just write down “Bears” or “Celts”.

1. The Greek root of the word “arctic”.
2. Namesake of the largest lake located entirely within Canada.
3. The hero of the legend of Cu Chulainn.
4. Known to live in earthen dwellings called “hill forts.”
5. Ate the Salmon of Knowledge, in a famous myth.
6. The subject of a famous aphorism uttered by Sam Elliott in The Big Lebowski.
7. Played Squire Trelawney in Brian Henson’s 1996 adaptation of Treasure Island.

Then, for the 8th question, they brought the categories together:

8. The 2012 film Brave, of course, was about a Celt who turns into a bear. OK, fine, I guess they were Gaels, but just go with it. Anyway, Brave was one of the nine most recently released Pixar films, so for this question, you’ll just name the other eight.

We had a four-minute timer, with musical accompaniment by Boston street performer Keytar Bear.

[Well, this is the one we coulda shoulda woulda jokered. We aced it — 15 points, for a total of 48.]
See the answers

Round 4: I Got Her Number, How Do You Like Them Apples?

It’s a round about math and apples!

1. Noted as one of the most popular by the U.S. Apple Association, what variety of apple came from 1930s Japan?
2. Of The Geometric Spirit is the main math-philosophy work by what seventeenth-century Frenchman with a famous namesake triangle, barrel, and wager?
3. Located in center field, the Home Run Apple is the only thing worth watching at what Major League Baseball stadium? [Jonathan was in the driver’s seat for the first two questions — now over to Larry and Don.]
4. The first major theorem to be proven with a computer, in the 1970s Kenneth Appel and Wolfgang Haken showed you can color any map, with no adjacent areas the same color, using how many colors? [Back to you, Jonathan. All you, Jonathan.]
5. Distilled from apple cider, Normandy’s Calvados VSOP is what kind of booze?
6. If you shaped your apple into a perfect sphere with a six-inch diameter, what would its volume be in cubic inches? (Hint: Your answer should have a a Greek letter in it.)
7. In Greek myth, Eris’s golden apple sparked the Trojan War by causing three goddesses to fight for the approval of what mortal?
8. Born in 11th-century Persia. Found a geometric method to determine all real roots of cubic equations. Credited with some famous quatrains called “Rubaiyat.” Who’s that?

[Another perfect round, for 8 more points. Our total was now 56.]
See the answers

At this point, it was time for a break. Letters to Cleo played, and GWD ran some comedy videos, dramatic readings of letters from conservative Texans who complain about their liberal quiz. Then came answers to rounds 1-4, and the standings. We were in 11th place, with the top spot held down by the Philly team everybody loves to hate, Independence Hall & Oates.

Kay Hanley of Letters To Cleo, singing


A recent and effective Geek Bowl innovation has been the numerical tiebreaker question, in which several facts combine into a formula, and teams try for an answer as close as possible to the actual one. For some reason, this year the Geeks placed that tiebreaker question just before round 5 — in fact on the back of the round 5 answer sheet. So we turned both in at the same time. The Geek Bowl XII tiebreaker question:

Add up all the days served in the U.S. Senate by John Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, and Edward Kennedy. Multiply by the number of nations containing Dunkin’ Donuts stores. Subtract from that product the population of Massachusetts as of the 1790 census. Or, if you’re like me and prefer your trivia expressed formulaically:

[(J + T + R) x D)] – M

where J = John Kennedy’s Senate days, T = Ted’s Senate days, R = Robert’s Senate days, D = Dunkin’ Donuts nations, and M = Massachusetts’ 1790 population.

[We guessed about 18,000 for the Kennedy total, 25 for D, and 300,000 for M. Since we like to turn in jagged rather than round numbers on questions like this, we submitted 156,789. Must have worked well, too, because we ended up at the top of our score cohort.]
See the answers

Round 5: Paul Revere’s Other Midnight Ride

Round 5 in typical Geeks Who Drink is a visual round, meaning a half-sheet of paper with some image-oriented challenge on it. Round 5 in Geek Bowl raises the bar up to video, and this year threw in some verse narration as well. Oh, and more Boston theming, and more charming and ingenious writing.

Thanks to the Geeks for putting this video on YouTube! Once again, answers are in the same video this year, so pause if that’s how you roll.

[Fantastic team effort on this one led us to another perfect round. Our total stood at 64.]
See the answers

Round 6: One if by Land, Two if by “C”

Here was the round in which 16 points were possible, but there was only one blank per question on the score sheet. This is how they explained it to us:

This round is worth 16 possible points. For ONE point, answer an easy question about someone with “land” in their name. OR, for TWO points, answer the harder question whose answer starts with the letter C. You can choose all 1-pointers, all 2-pointers, or a mixture of the two – but only give ONE answer for each question number. If you try to answer both, you will get ZERO points for that question. Finally: On the 2-point question, if it’s a person’s name, real or fictional, it’s the FIRST name that starts with a C.

I’ll indicate our choices in [brackets] after each one.

1. One point: Martin Landau played Rollin Hand on what action series that debuted when Tom Cruise was four?
Two points: He also played Rufio in what Oscar-winning 1963 period piece?
[We jumped on the “C” question immediately, and then almost as quickly started to (correctly) doubt our answer. We ended up falling back to the “land” question for one point.]

2. One point: Former NOW president Patricia Ireland penned a 1996 book with the same title as what Mel Gibson/Helen Hunt movie?
Two points: In 2004, Ireland managed a presidential campaign for what first black woman in the U.S. Senate?
[We were convinced about our “C” answer on this one.]

3. One point: In The Empire Strikes Back, Lando betrayed Han Solo on what planet?
Two points: What planet was Han’s birthplace?
[A confident chorus of people, including Star Wars superfans George and Don, rang in with the “C” answer here.]

4. One point: The daughter of an AFC cheerleader, living ballet legend Misty Copeland originally hails from what Midwest town that was also a chart-topping song in 1959?
Two points: Spelling question! “Sashay” is a secondary definition for what word that is also a ballet step? And yes, “spelling question” means you have to spell it correctly.
[No clue on the “C” answer here, but we felt good about our “land” answer.]

5. One point: Monty Python and the Holy Grail featured Carol Cleveland as sisters Zoot and Dingo, who tempted what chaste knight?
Two points: According to Geoffrey of Monmouth, King Arthur was born at Tintagel Castle in what English county?
[I think this may have been my favorite team moment this year. We knew the “land” answer for sure, and had a “C” answer that we felt maybe 75% certain about. We initially put down the “land” answer, but during the post-round countdown, Don pitched that since we were in 11th place as of the last standings, maybe it was time to take a risk or two. The team conferred, agreed, and put down the two-point answer. We got it right.]

6. One point: For her unlicensed portrayal in Feud: Bette and Joan, in 2017 Olivia de Havilland sued FX Networks and what American Horror Story producer?
Two points: De Havilland had a 1952 turn as the titular wife of a preacher, in what Shaw play?
[Jonathan and I are the literature guys on this team, but we were both clueless on the “C” answer, so we went with the “land” answer on this one.]

7. One point: Tom Holland’s Peter Parker attends a high school named for what part of Manhattan that’s home to the Chrysler Building?
Two points: As seen in Amazing Spider-Man #360, what was the full name of the first person to become Carnage?
[George, Brian, and I are all comic book guys. I think I was first to the gate on the “C” answer here — I knew it cold.]

8. One point: A Green day album, a Power Rangers villain, and the production team behind Kelly Rowland’s solo debut single “Dilemma”: All three share what biblical hunter’s name?
Two points: Ham’s eldest son founded a whole nation, plus he was the dad of the guy in the one-point question. Who is Ham’s eldest son?
[Once again, we jumped on the “C” question immediately. Unlike in question #1, we didn’t question ourselves. We should have, because we got it wrong.]

[1 + 2 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 1 + 2 + 0 = 11, bringing our total to 75.]
See the answers

Round 7: Goodnight Mook

Geek Bowl XII had a lot of clever rounds, but this one was my favorite. The video speaks for itself. You know the drill by now — answers in the video, pause if you want, direct link in the answers post.

[More awesome teamwork led us to a 7 in this round. Nobody on this team has a child young enough to have bought kid’s books during the B.J.-Novak-writing-kids-books era. Our total was 82.]
See the answers

Time for another intermission. We had more Letters to Cleo live, and more Letters From Texans video. We also had a Fenway Park tradition — just before the final round, the crowd sung an enthusiastic version of Neil Diamond’s “Sweet Caroline”, led by the former quizmaster at my local bar, Jeanette Cerami. After that, we got our standings. We were in third! And Independence Hall & Oates had dropped to ninth. There was much rejoicing at table 133.

Round 8: Random Knowledge

At last it was time for the final round. Round 8 in Geeks Who Drink pub quizzes is always “random knowledge” — no theme, questions from all over the place for varying point totals, always equaling 16. In Geek Bowl, the questions in this round are always worth two points apiece.

1. Name the two army generals who have been appointed U.S. Secretary of State since 1980. [We knew one right away, and Larry talked us into a correct answer on the second. Thanks, Larry!]
2. a) What buzzword does Webster define as “a job, usually for a specified time”? b) Defined as “any of several lively, springy dances in triple rhythm,” what similar word spawned French and Italian variants?
3. Adjusted for inflation, two 1965 films are in the domestic billion-dollar box-office club: a musical and a Soviet-banned epic drama. What are those?
4. First and last names: a) At last year’s British Open, who shot the first 62 in the history of the four golf majors? b) What Cubs first baseman had the major leagues’ most hits in the 1990s?
5. In the Himalayas, near the heads of the Indus and Brahmaputra, Mt. Kailash is a pilgrimage site for four religions: Tibetan Buddhism, the related Bon, and what two others? [We debated three answers around, two of which turned out to be correct. We put down one right one and one wrong one.]
6. a) Set in Boston, what 2015 Bethesda game lets players join the post-apocalyptic Minutemen? b) Joel and Tess work as smugglers in Boston, in what 2013 game about a different kind of apocalypse? [Brian was the man once again, getting us one of these points.]
7. a) What ’80s pop star composed Broadway’s “Kinky Boots”? b) What aughts pop star composed “Waitress”?
8. a) In 2017, Prime Minister Ana Brnabic became the first female, and first openly gay head of government in what Balkan country? b) The party of new Icelandic Prime Minister Katrin Jakobsdottir is named for the political left, and what related color that is not on Iceland’s flag?

[By my reckoning, we got 11 of these. However, the final standings had us at 94 rather than 93, so I’m speculating that one of our answers on question #8 was close enough to count.]
See the answers

Time for that final scoring break, and another Geek Bowl tradition: the In Memoriam segment, this year accompanied by Ciarán Nagle and ISHNA’s version of “Danny Boy.” The Geeks always do a great job with these, but they are always also chock full of spoilers. So, warning before you watch this video: it contains spoilers for Sherlock, Orphan Black, Supernatural, Doctor Who, Coco, The Walking Dead, Game Of Thrones, Stranger Things, and The Last Jedi. If you want to avoid the spoilers, pause the video at the Trump section.

At last, the final standings appeared. Mothra’n A Feeling stood in 6th place, happily above Independence Hall & Oates and Geek Bowl 10 winners Shiny & Chrome. (Turned out we were actually all 3 tied.) There was also a tie at the top! For this they don’t use the tiebreaker question, but instead had a sudden-death face-off. Verbatim from the Geek Bowl sheet (thanks for including it in a video, Geeks):

We have a list of things. Your job will be to name those things, one player at a time, alternating between teams. If you give a wrong answer, if you give an answer that’s already been given, if you don’t answer in five seconds, or if you try to consult your teammates, you are out. The last team with a player standing will be the champions of Geek Bowl Twelve. Here’s the question.

At the end of each year, a Billboard chart lists the top 100 songs of the year, the Year-End Hot 100. We’re concentrating on the top 40 spots. On the 64 charts since it began in 1954, the year-end top 40 has featured a total of 37 singles with the word “girl” in the title — either by itself, in the plural “girls,” or in a compound word. The list includes two pairs of different songs with the same title — on those songs only, you can give the same title twice. Again, we’re looking for the 37 singles that have made Billboard’s Year-End top 40 that have “girl” in their titles. Go!

This was an exciting showdown, and not without controversy, though I think the proper team did emerge victorious. Let’s go to Christopher Short, Geeks editor-in-chief, with the Errorogenous Zone report:

And that was it! Congratulations to Last House On The Jeff, and HUGE congratulations to Geeks Who Drink for pulling off another triumph. I look forward to seeing you all again next year in Las Vegas!