Album Assignments: Bat Out Of Hell

Of all the rock stars who were popular when I was 8 years old, none was more confusing and frightening to me than Meat Loaf. Sure, there was Kiss, but between their Marvel comic and that movie where they all had superpowers, they fit comfortably into the superhero mold for me. Alice Cooper hosted The Muppet Show, so he had to be safe. And yeah, Judas Priest and Black Sabbath and the Sex Pistols were all out there, but they weren’t even on my kid radar.

But here was this giant, messy, sweaty guy on TV, seemingly screaming into the mic. His album had a bad word right in its title! The cover showed a big black half-demon-ridden motorcycle rocketing up out of a spooky graveyard, with an enormous screaming bat in the background. And he was named MEAT LOAF. (Hence, both frightening and confusing.) Surely this had to be the epitome of that freaky heavy metal I’d heard about.

By the time I got to high school, I was more ready for him, but Denver radio seemed to have no interest, so it wasn’t until my freshman year of college at NYU that I finally clued in. Meat Loaf was all over New York radio, despite having peaked 10 years prior. Once I heard “Paradise By The Dashboard Light” a few times, especially now that I’d had some dashboard light experience of my own, it all started to make sense. So I bought Bat Out Of Hell at last, and from the first few seconds, it floored me.

The first song is the title track, and it opens with some power chords, and then a fierce, bravura piano part from Roy Bittan, The Professor of E Street Band fame. (E Streeter Max Weinberg also plays on the album.) The band kicks in with frenzied abandon, revving and revving to a classical climax, which then swings around in the Baba O’Riley rhythm, crashing down with thunderous piano chords and guitar screams to lock into a solid groove, over which an electric guitar solo will soar, finally resolving into the main melody line. That’s all in the first ninety seconds. It’s an overture to the grand epic which begins at 1:55, when Meat Loaf starts singing, and then goes on for another eight minutes.

Cover image from Bat Out Of Hell

This is Jim Steinman songwriting. You can’t talk about Meat Loaf without talking about Jim Steinman, and he made sure of that by placing “SONGS BY JIM STEINMAN” prominently under the album’s title on the cover. I recently read a critic’s quote about Steinman to the effect that he’s in a class by himself, simply because nobody else wants to write the kind of songs he writes. To smother them with adjectives, they are, by turns: majestic, theatrical, ridiculous, emotional, surprising, bizarre, affecting, hilarious, strange, histrionic, heartfelt, sly, and beautiful. He loves grand sweeping gestures, silly wordplay, classical movements, tempo changes, dramatic dialogue, sound effects, and melodic/lyrical callbacks. If they should all occur within the same song, so much the better.

They certainly all do in “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” surely one of the longest, goofiest, and show-tuniest of all rock classics. Now listen, I love authenticity and soul-baring in rock music just as much as anybody. But for me there is something extremely appealing in this exaggerated fantasy-comedy scenario, elevated by its music to mock-operatic proportions. There’s so much pleasure and surprise in its every twist and turn.

We start with a 50’s rock and roll swagger, only missing the doo-wops in the background, then leap into Broadway production number grandiosity. But wait, here comes a whole second singer (Ellen Foley), another nod to musical theater as two characters stake their space in the song, sliding into a duet. Oh, and now we get the doo-wops, or rather the “ooh, shop shops”. The chorus recurs with more voices behind it, and falsetto parts amid the Broadway sparklers. New lyrics lead into another “doubly blessed”, which suddenly gets blindsided by a speeding truck of double-time teenage lust, switching quickly into makeout sound-effects and… Phil Rizzuto?!?

All at once we’ve got a hilarious baseball/sex metaphor going on, which both builds tension in the song and comically undercuts it, but just as you think the song and the teens are about to climax: STOP RIGHT THERE! True to its adolescent theme, some realms can’t be visited without a serious commitment, and this song commits to its character interactions while, again, throwing in the punchlines. Will you love me forever? Let me sleep on it! The back-and-forth of these two is just flat-out funny, especially the increasingly pleading tone in Meat Loaf’s voice as he keeps trying for a free pass. And then another turn, resolution of the sexual theme into the song’s final punchline — he swears to love her til the end of time… “so now I’m praying for the end of time / to hurry up and arrive / ‘Cause if I’ve gotta spend another minute with you / I don’t think that I can really survive.” Praying for the end of time, so I can end my time with you. It’s a masterful comic resolution, but the song has one more trick up its sleeve.

Over the outro, Foley lyrically reprises the beginning of the song — “It never felt so good / It never felt so right / And we were glowing like the metal on the edge of a knife,” restoring a sweetness to the memory that dissipates the bitterness and frustration of just a few moments prior. Meat Loaf’s part adds even more poignancy to the nostalgia: “It was long ago and it was far away / And it was so much better than it is today.” These parts give a thematic heft to everything that preceded them, making this a truly touching story rather than just a silly throwaway.

See, that’s part of the Steinman secret. Sure, it’s theatrical, it’s over-the-top, it’s downright preposterous. But if you look closely enough you’ll also find that it is deeply felt, even amid all the absurdity. That’s why Meat Loaf is such a perfect singer for these songs. He is one hundred percent willing to go way over the top, but he also sings with such commitment that he absolutely sells the genuine emotion that lives in these overwrought boxes. Check out some of the quieter songs, like “For Crying Out Loud” or especially “Heaven Can Wait.”

That song might as well be straight out of a musical (and indeed, was originally written for a Steinman musical, which apparently was going to be a… well, a science fiction version of Peter Pan.) It’s nothing like your typical rock song, but it also steers clear of the gaudier edges of Steinman’s oeuvre, and with Meat Loaf singing it becomes a genuinely lovely ballad. But whether it’s tender moments like this or headlong thrill rides like “All Revved Up With No Place To Go”, what binds this whole album together is that it is just. Pure. FUN.

And that’s a pretty damn great thing to be able to say about a rock and roll record.

Album Assignments: The Rising

Bruce Springsteen tells a story about the making of The Rising. He told it to Mark Binelli in a 2002 Rolling Stone article:

Springsteen still remembers the moment he realized that he needed to make this album. It was a few days after September 11th, and he was leaving the beach. A man drove by, rolled his window down and yelled, “We need ya!” Then he rolled his window up and kept going. “And I thought, ‘Well, I’ve probably been a part of this guy’s life for a while,’ ” Springsteen says. “And people wanna see other people they know, they wanna be around things they’re familiar with. So he may need to see me right about now. That made me sense, like, ‘Oh, I have a job to do.’ Our band, hopefully, we were built to be there when the chips are down. That was part of the idea of the band, to provide support. The most fundamental thing I hear from fans, constantly, is, ‘Man, you got me through’ — whatever it might be. ‘My divorce. My graduation. My high school. This part of my life, that part.'”

Bruce made it his job to be there for us after 9/11, to provide support when we needed it, and damn, does he ever come through on this album. I got The Rising when it came out, and always enjoyed it, but I never really listened closely to it until Robby assigned it to me this week. (Well, this fortnight — in case it’s not obvious, we’ve shifted this game to a biweekly basis.)

Listening closely to this record is a revelation. These songs aren’t just songs. They’re medicine. They’re a balm, not just for a nation or its people suffering after an attack, but for anybody who has ever suffered a deep, fundamental loss. Because what becomes abundantly clear after listening to this album is that it is all about loss. That loss might be national, it might be personal — it really doesn’t matter to the one doing the grieving.

See, some of these songs are clearly about the towers falling, or the first responders, or the people lost in the fire. Some of them are about different sorts of losses — loss of a loved one, loss of a relationship, loss of innocence. But if you listen to the songs enough, you find that all those things are really not so different.

What Springsteen knows, and what he articulates so beautifully in these songs, is that 9/11 is powerful both as a real, historical event and as a symbol. Every single one of us, if we live long enough, will suffer our own personal 9/11 — a moment when something or someone we thought was a fixed, permanent fact of life is suddenly taken from us. In the space of moments, and utterly without warning, the belief collapses, or the deception is revealed, or the person leaves, or dies, leaving us bereft and bewildered. Staring at an empty sky. Most lives will have more than one of these moments.

Album cover from The Rising

Springsteen gives us two things for the pain. The first, very simply, is recognition. In healing from a wound, processing a loss, or recovering from a trauma, the presence of a witness can be an invaluable comfort — someone who knows what you’re going through, who sees you, simply sees you, as you are suffering, and acknowledges that the pain you feel is real, and valid.

Bruce witnesses that deep, excruciating grief in songs like “You’re Missing.” In the lyrics, he looks at his surroundings and lists what’s still around, what’s normal — “Coffee cups on the counter, / jackets on the chair / Papers on the doorstep” — and then returns, over and over, to the loss. “But you’re not there. Everything is everything, but you’re missing.” It reminds me of one of my favorite quotes about grief, from poet Graham Nelson:

“Much of the sense of unfairness in grieving comes from the appalling way that a sudden absence seems to affect nothing else: not the trees in the garden, not the books on their shelves, not the crockery to be washed up. We know that the world has been transformed, and yet the world does not.”

“You’re Missing” perfectly captures that essential experience of loss, resolving into a weeping keyboard solo at the end, washing over a mournful beat and repeated string figure.

Then there’s the devastating “Paradise”, the quietest and darkest song on the record. In it, the narrator radiates pain, a pain strongly suggestive of a dead child:

Where the river runs to black
I take the schoolbooks from your pack
Plastics, wire, and your kiss
The breath of eternity on your lips

He dreams, over and over, of the one he’s lost, and returns to one thought: “I wait for paradise”. He’s waiting for nothing but death, dreaming over and over of that reunion, of crossing that river to be with the child again. But then, at the end of his dream:

I see you on the other side
I search for the peace in your eyes
But they’re as empty as paradise
They’re as empty as paradise

Even the idea of death as succor is denied him. Wishing for death when you’re alive is no road to relief — the paradise at the end of it is even emptier than the life it leaves behind.

Springsteen does more than witness for us, though. The second part of his medicine is to bring air, light, tenderness, music, hope, and life into that darkness. Not to overwhelm it, not to deny it or block it out — just enough to tinge the experience with a possibility of grace. Even “Paradise” ends with, “I break above the waves / I feel the sun on my face.”

Thesis statements for this approach bookend the album. The first song, “Lonesome Day”, is clearly about a personal loss — “Baby once I thought I knew / Everything I needed to know about you / Your sweet whisper, your tender touch / But I didn’t really know that much.” The singer is newly, unexpectedly alone, but also still grounded, knowing that “it’s gonna be okay / If I can just get through this lonesome day.” Even in the midst of personal destruction, he repeats, “It’s alright / It’s alright / It’s alright”… or it will be. And until then, all he needs to do is get through the day.

The album ends with a broader scope. “My City Of Ruins” was actually written before 9/11, about the economic wreckage of Asbury Park, but after that day, the phrase “my city’s in ruins” couldn’t help but evoke the searing images of Ground Zero, shown over and over on every American television set. Bruce takes us through those ruins, and asks, “Tell me how do I begin again?” Then he answers: “With these hands.” That phrase, repeated over and over. With these hands, I pray. With these hands, I pick myself up. With these hands, I rebuild. And finally he is shouting a new chorus: “Come on, rise up! Come on, rise up!”

That’s how hope returns. With simple survival — get through the day. With simple tasks, the work of hands, of faith, of small pieces, built up slowly into the bigger pieces that can once again let us rise up.

Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, and Little Steven Van Zandt singing into the same mic

Other strands of vitality make their way through the album, including a strong motif of eroticism. Sensual images echo around the collection. “Let’s Be Friends (Skin To Skin)” juxtaposes two concepts within its title — friends who get “skin to skin” are surely friends with benefits, at the least. The song describes a relationship with someone who is very different from you, but who might be able to join you after all, an erotic joining urged and justified with “don’t know when this chance might come again / Good times got a way of slippin’ away.”

That theme repeats much more strongly in “Worlds Apart”, along with the image: “In your skin upon my skin, in the beating of our hearts / May the living let us in before the dead tear us apart.” Over Middle Eastern instrumentation and chanting, Springsteeen sings of lovers (and perhaps hemispheres) separated by a huge cultural gulf, but hoping that they can “let blood build a bridge over mountains draped in stars.” There’s no question that sexuality is part of this connection — the song contains one of his sexiest and most startling lines ever: “I taste the seed upon your lips, lay my tongue upon your scars.”

The tongue makes another appearance in “The Fuse”. Against the backdrop of a funeral, and an ominous sense of impending doom, a husband and wife meet: “Quiet afternoon in the empty house / On the edge of the bed you slip off your blouse / The room is burning with the noon sun / Your bittersweet taste on my tongue.” That last line is sung a capella, the only such moment on the album. It’s a musical choice which puts enormous force behind the lyric, placing eroticism front and center as a means to cope with the inevitable loss and destruction at the other end of the titular fuse. Making love, when it’s loving, is the opposite of death — life-affirming, life-creating. It’s a beautiful antidote to the pain that pervades so many of the album’s songs, including this one.

Another antidote Bruce prescribes: music. It manifests exquisitely in “Mary’s Place.” That song has another typically bereaved narrator, carrying a locket with the picture of his lost loved one, hearing her voice on the horizon, dreaming of her in his arms, wanting to know how he can live broken-hearted. Then he puts her favorite record on the turntable, and drops the needle. Over music that slowly gathers force, Springsteen describes a song slowly gathering force: “Band’s countin’ out midnight… Floor’s rumblin’ loud… Singer’s callin’ up daylight… And waitin’ for that shout from the crowd…” The lyrics imbue the music with an almost magical power, and when the song explodes with “Turn it up! Turn it up! Turn it up!”, it’s an explosion of joy, and relief. For that moment, everything’s alright. Better than alright.

It’s a perfect reflexive moment: a musical balm about music as balm. “Let it rain, let it rain, let it rain,” the song urges, and what rains down is healing and comfort. That’s The Rising. Thanks, Boss, for being there when we needed ya.

Album Assignments: A Rush Of Blood To The Head

Coldplay’s first single, “Yellow”, bugged me the first time I heard it. Then I heard it (approximately) 129,000 more times, and it really, REALLY bugged me. Consequently, I pretty much wrote off the band for quite a long while.

Over time I’ve warmed to Coldplay, based on a few different things, including “Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall”, “Fix You”, and Willie Nelson’s cover of “The Scientist.” So I decided to give one of their albums a chance, and fairly arbitrarily settled on this one. After a number of listens, I have a conclusion, and the conclusion is this: Coldplay is basically a bargain-price U2, if U2 was driven by piano instead of guitar, and concerned more with relationships than with the world.

Note that I mean this as neither praise nor blame, completely. I don’t think the two bands are in the same tier (which is why I say “bargain-price”), but there’s a musical comparison there. They share a penchant for the grand, the sweeping, the magnificent. They both have charismatic frontmen, a spiritual side, layered and effects-laden production. And A Rush Of Blood To The Head is not exactly Coldplay’s War, but it may be its October, which is to say that it contains several very strong tracks, and the rest of it gives the impression of a band on the verge of becoming the best version of itself.

Album art from A Rush Of Blood To The Head

Among the strong tracks: “Clocks”, which deservedly won the Record Of The Year Grammy in 2004 (two years after U2 snagged it twice in a row.) The song has a great melody, a super-hooky piano riff, and poetic lyrics that evoke desperation, confusion, and just a hint of salvation. There’s the aforementioned “The Scientist”, which the comic book geek in me has decided must be Reed Richards’ theme song. There’s the deep regret, the sudden understanding that he’s been neglectful, and most of all the painful contrast of intellect and emotion, of someone so skilled at pulling apart mental puzzles, but so poor at understanding other people. Underneath it all is a deep love and commitment, which we’re never quite sure will be enough.

“God Put A Smile Upon Your Face” pulls off a neat trick lyrically, taking advantage of a grammatical quirk of the word “put”, and contrasting it with the word “give”. “Give” changes form when shifting from the imperative mood to the simple past tense:

  • Imperative: God give me style and give me grace
  • Past tense: God gave you style and gave you grace

Now here’s “put”

  • Imperative: God put a smile upon my face
  • Past tense: God put a smile upon your face

Because “put” stays put grammatically, the lyrics create a tension around whether the narrator is pleading or simply recounting, creating a feeling of uncertainty and anxiety underscored by the repetition of “your guess is as good as mine.”

Finally, and my favorite, is “Amsterdam”. The whole album is emotional, but this song is at another level. The intro piano is reminiscent of the song “October” itself, in fact, as is the plaintive and searching vocal. But where this song truly excels is in its build from a spare and quiet beginning to a truly sublime and magical climax. Right at 3:57, when the drums kick in, the song just grows wings and takes to the skies. The lyrics take on a sense of majesty as it rises above the clouds. “You came along, and you cut me loose.”

Nothing else on the album comes close to those tracks. There’s a nice minor-key feel to “A Whisper”, a sinister sense in “A Rush Of Blood To The Head”, and a catchy tune on “In My Place.” But all of it has a sense of promise of what’s to come.

Thoughts on the 2015 Interactive Fiction Competition

The Interactive Fiction Competition (IFComp) started in 1995, and for its first ten years, I was a very active participant. I entered the comp 4 different times (1996, 2001, 2002, 2004) and wrote hundreds of reviews. I reviewed pretty much every game submitted to the comp from 1996-2004, with a few scattered exceptions (stuff I’d tested, languages I don’t speak, troll games, etc.)

Then, for the next 10 years, I didn’t vote in the comp at all. Not coincidentally, my son Dante was born in 2005. Once that happened, the time I used to set aside for IF got drastically curtailed, and I pretty much slipped into frozen caveman state. I’ve dipped my toe in a few times, writing reviews of various comp games that were nominated for various XYZZY Awards, but for the most part I’ve remained quite disconnected from the IFComp at large.

As Dante gets older, though, he becomes more independent and my time opens up again. So this year I decided to take a shot at reviewing some IFComp games. However, I discovered rather quickly that the IFComp of today is drastically different from the one I left behind in 2005.

I followed my usual comp reviewing method, which is to let some program dial up a random order and play through the games it selects. My time is still a lot more limited than it used to be, so out of 53 games, I ended up playing 9. Of those 9, the composition was thus:

By way of contrast, of the 33 games I reviewed in 2004, 2 were homebrew and the rest were parser-driven. None were CYOA. The 2015 comp, in my experience, has a completely different quality than the 1995-2004 comps had. The definition of “interactive fiction” has opened wide, wide enough to admit even so-called games whose idea of interactivity is basically “click here to turn the page.”

Logo for the 2015 IF Comp

Now, at this point I should make a couple of things clear. First, I understand that non-parser IF games participated in the first 10 years of the comp. A CYOA game called Desert Heat comes to mind, which at the time seemed like a surprising experiment. Those comps had their share of minimally interactive games too, most of which were roundly panned. There was Ian Finley’s Life On Beal Street, whose interactivity was pretty much “Would you like to read the next paragraph? (Y/N)”. There was Harry Hardjono’s Human Resources Stories, a fake job-interview quiz from somebody who was clearly really angry at employers. There was the infamous (to me) A Moment Of Hope, which pretty much totally ignored whatever you’d type in many scenes, just steamrolling on with whatever story it wanted to tell. Heck, even Photopia, one of the most acclaimed comp games of all time, drew its share of criticism for a perceived lack of interactivity.

So yeah, I get that 1995-2004 wasn’t some kind of perfect golden age where every game was a great IF experience (though I hasten to say that Photopia is a really, really great IF experience). Anyway, trust me when I say that I remember the bad times. The second thing I should make clear is that I enjoy CYOA well enough for what it is. It’s a neat little narrative trick. I had a good time with CYOA books as a kid, and can still have a ball with a well-written CYOA work. But stacked up against full-blown parser games which offer a constant sense of openness and possibility, multiple-choice is just pretty boring by comparison. I find myself so indifferent about the choices presented that I just roll a die to pick one, so that I can get on to the next bit of story.

So I reacted with dismay at the suddenly flipped proportions of the comp’s 2015 games, at least as presented to me in random order. Where in 2000 “Desert Heat” was an odd curiosity, here it was the parser game that was the outlier! I felt like I’d come to a film festival, but that in most of the theaters, I’d instead be handed a coffee table book. I mean, coffee table books are cool. Some of them are spectacular! But for me they’re not as much fun as movies, and it’s a bit of a disappointment to get one instead of a movie.

I rated the comp games the way I always do: based on how much I enjoyed the experience. And the fact is, I don’t enjoy CYOA games as much as parser games, so even the ones I liked a lot could only get an 8 or so. Also, unlike parser games, CYOA games are extremely difficult to transcript while they’re happening, which really drains my ability and inclination to review them. So I won’t review them, but I will provide the list of responses I wrote while playing. CYOA and lists, a match made in heaven! (Fair warning that those lists may contain spoilers — I wasn’t trying to be careful about that.)

Here then, for whatever they may be worth, my “reviews” of 9 2015 IFComp games:

I THINK THE WAVES ARE WATCHING ME by Bob McCabe

I downloaded this Windows executable, and despite my trepidation about running .exe files from unknown people on my machine, I ran it, hoping that the IFComp gods had ruled out any viruses. I got a DOS-looking window, with some DOS-looking text:

I Think The Waves Are Watching Me.
By Bob McCabe.

Build: 106

(G)etting Started.
(P)lay the Game.
(S)ecrets I've unlocked.
(C)redits/Thanks.

Then I typed “g”. Then “G”. Then “P”. Nothing happened, any of these times. I typed “Play the game”. I typed “Help”. I typed “Helloooooooooo?”. Each time, after hitting enter, my words disappeared, with no other effect. Then I closed the window.

I guess this isn’t really a review, but it does explain why I gave the game a 1.

Rating: 1.0

SWITCHEROO by Mark C. Marino & family

  • Engaging, appealing, well-implemented. Smooth and beautiful.
  • Surprisingly a combat card game is an alternative to the story?
  • Some weirdness: “Born a slave on a plantation, Jazmine became a hero when she escaped through the Underground Railroad to a Midwestern whistle-stop town. Later, she was railroaded into selling her story to a motion picture company who fast-tracked the film into theaters. Ironically, she would become an R&B legend best known for her performances on a popular dance show with a train theme.” So she lived how long?
  • Funny: “Shazbot! You use the Electric Slidekick!” Lots of great humor — take-off on Percy Jackson with dentistry substituted. “Lightning teeth”.
  • Interesting — not sure how the math is working, but the card game feels like it’s a bit slanted to prevent the player from losing.
  • Once the story begins, much of the interactivity starts to consist of “show the next part”
  • Whoa – wheelchair boy into able girl.
  • Scale of girly fictional types – Hermione, Dorothy, Little Prince
  • Possibly adopted by “Mr. and Mrs. Sheephead.” Upon clicking mention of California Sheephead: “Ah, I’m glad you were curious. The California Sheephead is a salt water fish, found off the coast of California. It has the unusual property of all the fish being born female and then, given certain circumstances, like when she gets sick of all the long lines at bathrooms, changing into a male.”
  • Mostly writing is smooth. Found first error after about 15 mins: “They were amazed at how much Denise could eat at the burger place after their just a short adventure.”
  • Doll in wheelchair. Moving. “The only word he could think of was: home”.
  • Ending choice, also moving.
  • I wish there was a way to “undo”

Rating: 7.7

NOWHERE NEAR SINGLE by kaleidofish

  • “Because the only way to show you’re serious about someone is to only be with them,” Sarai says sarcastically. [Hmmm.]
  • You’d rather be homeless than have awkwardness in your relationship? You must live somewhere warm. And safe.
  • “Hey, Jerri…” Sarai starts. “Since you don’t have a bed, you can sleep on my side of the bed. I’ll take the couch.” [I thought I had my own room. Wish there was scrollback on this. Oh hey, the back button. That’ll work. So yeah, “Her apartment has two bedrooms. You have yours to yourself.” I have a bedroom but no bed? And Sarai is offering to put me in bed with Nayeli? That is awkward.]
  • It must have taken some stamina to make up 100 fake pop girl star names.
  • From kiss on the forehead to Jerri saying “Yeah. I keep thinking that any day now they’ll finalize what image they want to have, but I think there’s been some setbacks.” Feels like a page is missing.
  • “You heat up leftovers from the fridge and go to your room. Yeah, the one with the wooden floor and no furniture.” [That explanation would have been helpful earlier.]
  • “Tonight’s aout you and me, and no one else.” [Typo]
  • “A large screen television sits on top of dark mohagony drawers.” [Another. Writing is pretty spot-on, but not flawless.]
  • Oh, nice effect on revising the words of advice to gay youth.
  • It never seems to occur to camgirl to just get a regular job.

Rating: 7.4

ONAAR by Robert DeFord

I have to admit, at this point I was pretty excited just to not be picking from a menu for my interactivity. That context probably improved my reaction to Onaar over how I might have rated it in a previous comp. However, it’s also true that Onaar is pretty fun at the beginning. The story starts fast-paced, with the PC needing to escape impending danger. A few commands and a custcene later, and you’re into a whole different environment. From there it’s the usual challenge of exploring the landscape and figuring out the plot. Sadly for me, these fun activities were accompanied by a couple of less fun activities: managing a hunger timer and a decreasing health timer. The latter of these was caused by a poison bite, but it was also less bothersome, as the antidote can be found and the timer stopped. The hunger thing, on the other hand, is a peeve of mine in IF games unless it’s serving some very interesting purpose. No such purpose is to be found in Onaar — it’s just the usual inconvenience which doesn’t engage the mind or enrich the story. Oh well, at least there’s no sleep timer.

I would soon discover that the mechanical aspects of the game are by far its dominant theme, well ahead of anything like story or puzzles. My first clue was in the PC’s self-narration:

As you stand on the sand dripping wet, you remember Father Marrow’s advice to become an apprentice alchemist. “Well Father,” you say under your breath. “It looks like I’m not off to a good start, but I can at least make it a little side quest to report those marauders to the authorities when I get to someplace civilized.”

“I can at least make it a little side quest?” Does the PC know he’s in a game? As it turns out, yes, but not in any kind of interrogative postmodern way — rather just a casual consciousness, as if this is how everyone naturally approaches reality. In Onaar, it really is how everybody approaches reality, as a passing traveler revealed when giving advice:

“Say, you don’t look so good. I’ll bet you have at least one malady. You really ought to be checking your stats more often. Those maladies will kill you if you don’t treat them in time.”

“You really ought to be checking your stats more often?” I found this very jarring, and rather unusual. Generally in IF, the mathy aspects of the simulation are pushed well under the surface, revealed only in the tone and urgency of messages, e.g. “You’re starting to feel faint from hunger.” Onaar is much closer to a CRPG experience in which various numerical stats (health, strength, mana, etc.) are right up front for the player to watch. This is fine too, but even in a typical RPG session (be it mediated by computers or people), there is an observed separation between what the players perceive and what the characters perceive. While all the stats, saving throws, and so forth are available to the player’s knowledge, from the character’s point of view it’s more or less “did I succeed at what I just tried?” Only in the land of parody would another character say something like, “Well, thanks to your Charisma stat of 17, you’ve convinced me of your point of view!” Or for that matter, “You really ought to be checking your stats more often.” Yet Onaar is completely straight-faced.

This kind of naked machinery is on display throughout the game. Various numerical stats are listed after objects, tasks list what stats are needed to perform them, and so forth. It’s weird, but I got used to it. Once the dramatic beginning was over, I found myself with a steep learning curve, figuring out all the intricate rules of this very intricate gameworld. That slowed the narrative pace down considerably, but eventually I got on track with what turned out to be a tutorial for the game’s primary mechanic of alchemy. That mechanic itself turns out to be quite involved, with requirements to gather ingredients from far and wide, take them through a number of magical steps, etc. The procedural quality of this ended up generating some drama in my playthrough as I was dealing with a (different, second) poison timer and only barely managed to synthesize the cure before my health ran out. For the most part, though, all these fiddly rules just made me tired. It’s obvious that an incredible amount of detail and care has gone into this game, and in fact it is an ideal game for somebody who really enjoys putting together complicated recipes from a detailed list of ingredients. The scales are weighted away from lateral thinking and emotional engagement, and towards grinding repetitive tasks. I’m not so much that kind of player, but I didn’t mind stepping into that mindset for a couple of hours, if for no other reason than even this CRPG routine still felt like so much richer an interactive experience than CYOA multiple choice. Of course, after those two hours I was nowhere close to finishing the game, and I doubt I’ll go back to it, but I appreciated being there as a reminder of how the comp used to feel.

Rating: 8.1

KANE COUNTY by Michael Sterling and Tina Orisney

  • “You tap on the break and hold the wheel straight.” – not an auspicious beginning
  • “Choose a class” – again, exposed game machinery
  • ARGH, back button restarts the game. Very reviewer unfriendly.
  • “On the other hand, if climb on top of a nearby hill” – then Tonto see you!
  • Some things strangely don’t lead to choices: ” There are three ways to get up it: follow a gravel wash, trace a well-worn track along an old, torn-down barb-wire fence, or go up directly and push through some junipers and shrubs.” but the only link is “Continue”. Oh, I see, the choice comes a bit later.
  • “You open the bottle and drink.” Why is this called interactive, again?
  • “but you might find some other use for it later on. Gain a Boat Part.” Oh, and uh, spoiler alert.
  • “This might be a good time to use one of your food items…” Not that I’m going to give you the option to do so.
  • “Look at the other area or chose a site.” 1, misspelling, and 2, this is one link that is presenting as two options.
  • “Make a fire – requires a digging tool” – why offer me an option you know I can’t pick?
  • CYOAs like this feel so arbitrary — you’re more or less choosing blind each time. And there’s no “undo”.

Rating: 4.9

LAID OFF FROM THE SYNESTHESIA FACTORY by Katherine Morayati

I was relieved and encouraged when I saw Katherine Morayati’s name. I had played some of Broken Legs and enjoyed it. So I kicked open that Glulx interpreter ready for some true text adventuring at last. Then I read the help info, because that’s how I roll, and saw this “About The Author” blurb:

Katherine Morayati is a music writer by day and by night and an interactive fiction person the rest of the time. She is the editor-in-chief of SPAG and the author of Broken Legs, which took second place in the 2009 Interactive Fiction Competition. This is nothing like that.

Slightly ominous, but I’m sure she just means it’s a totally different tone or genre or something. After all, she says clearly elsewhere in that help info, “Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory is a work of parser interactive fiction.”

Except, after trying to “play” it, I figured out that no, it isn’t, either, and in fact the biggest difference between this and Broken Legs is that Broken Legs is an IF game, whereas this is more akin to a text generating machine that can sometimes be prodded to respond to various keywords, but is also quite happy to do its own thing no matter what you type. In fact, on my first playthrough, the PC ended up by a lake and I tried to type “swim”, except my fat fingers typed “seim” instead. Despite my nonsensical input, the game went ahead telling the story: “I decide he isn’t coming and head back to my car. With every mile marker I resolve to turn back, or turn off and find the nearest bar, or turn off and crash…”, so on and so forth, THE END. Seriously, “*** The End ***”. “Seim” was the final command of the game, causing it to spit out a bunch of final-ish text and stop. Next prompt I got was the old “Would you like to RESTART, RESTORE a saved game, QUIT or UNDO the last command?” Undo, obviously. Except that the game replied: “The use of ‘undo’ is forbidden in this game.” Well then, I riposted, perhaps if you wish to disable “undo” in your game you ought not prompt me to type it in? Except, you know, far less calm and polite.

So, just as I was set up by the overall CYOA-ness of this comp to enjoy Onaar more than I might have, I was set up to be much more frustrated by Laid Off than I might have otherwise been. After that first, disastrous playthrough, I wrapped my head around the fact that this game is much more The Space Under The Window than Spider And Web. I tried again, this time just typing keywords and letting the game take me where it wanted. I enjoyed the experience a lot more that second time. The writing and overall concept of this game is a bit impenetrable, on purpose I think, but it still pulls off some lovely turns of phrase, articulating complex concepts: “What you are: A trim, functional paragon of a woman in lifelong battle with a disheveled unraveled omnidirectional grab of a girl.”; “What Brian is: deflatingly human when you’re with him, horribly beguiling when you’re not.” I’m grateful to have played it — I just wish it had been the spice to a better meal.

Rating: 6.3

TAGHAIRM by Chandler Groover

  • “Turn the page” style interactivity
  • Creepy. Creepy may not be a very tough emotional note to hit.
  • Oh ugh animal abuse.
  • Hm, timing matters. Throws off my randomizer. But then again my participation was pretty detached after the beginning.
  • All in all, pretty horrible. Felt like I was in a Milgram experiment.

Rating: 1.7

THE WAR OF THE WILLOWS by Adam Bredenberg

Running Python 3.4, I get a title card, 4 ominous seeming verses, and then this:

Traceback (most recent call last):
File "C:\Users\Paul\Dropbox\IF\IFComp2015\willows\PLAY.py", line 26, in
story.start()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 1525, in start
game = intro()
File "./stories\ds_willows_1.py", line 82, in intro
raw_input()
NameError: name 'raw_input' is not defined

Oh well.

Rating: 1.0

THE MAN WHO KILLED TIME by Claudia Doppioslash

  • Oh dear. Another unpromising beginning, this time even before the game starts: “Notes: – English is not my first language. – While I was writing it, I realised its nature is more that of a non-branching story, but I wanted to have an entry at IFComp and I could use the feedback anyway, so here it is.”
  • A bit hard to read. Also “Responsability” – you don’t have to be a native english speaker to use spellcheck.
  • This is a tough slog.
  • This is 100% “turn the page” interactivity so far, 10 minutes in.
  • “on the whole it looked like it might be an appropriately assistantely time to show up.” Hoo boy.
  • OMG, a choice! A yes/no choice, but that’s as good as it gets so far.
  • “In fact he had a, not unfounded, feeling that he already was in this over his ears. Or at least a future self of his was.” I wonder if this actually makes some kind of coherent sense to someone somewhere.
  • Parts of this are compelling. The English plus the intricacy of the theme make it hard for me to hang on, and the interactivity is pretty much the same as a book. But as a story, with a good editor, I might enjoy it.
  • “He didn’t want to realise he was alone, to risk relinquish the mode of being under scrutiny. Because if he did, then he nothing would stop him from doing that. He must not let his eye wanted to the cabinet. Yet as he the thought first entered him, it kept growing in his mind, as it usually did and does.” …Annnnd you lost me again.
  • One of the few choices turns into a non-choice.
  • Whuh? Ends altoghether when it feels like it’s about to step out of the prologue.

Rating: 2.9

Now, in fairness, it turns out that the random selector may have done me wrong. Looking at the results, it appears that none of the games I played landed in the top 25% of the final standings. And in fact, only Nowhere Near Single and Onaar were in the top 20 games. Moreover, the top 3 games (and 7 of the top 10) were parser-driven, so it’s not as though IFComp has fully turned into CYOAComp. For that matter, perhaps some of those highly placing CYOA games could have given me a much different impression of how immersive and enjoyable that medium can be.

Until next year, though, I’m probably going to seek out the parser games, and leave the rest be. It’s possible that being an IFComp judge is better left to people with enough time for IF that they don’t mind spending much of it frustrated. That used to be me, but it isn’t anymore.

Wait Another Day

This year’s music mix has a new factor thrown in. Normally these collections are culled from the music I’ve been listening to over the previous year (with “year” being defined as November – October, so I can get the CD mailed to Wales in time for Christmas). That part hasn’t changed, but the new factor is the album assignments game I’ve been playing with Robby over the fall. That’s changed my listening habits, so that a couple of days out of each week are now devoted to a particular album, with the aim of writing about it later. That’s brought in some things that wouldn’t have been in my regular rotation — Elvis Costello and The Clash among them. It also means that some of this stuff I’ve already written about, so I’ll try not to repeat myself. Of course, that means I may be a bit briefer than usual on some tunes.

1. The Airborne Toxic EventNo More Lonely Nights
Case in point. TATE is now on my “to-do” list after this track, which performs the minor miracle of resurrecting this Give My Regards To Broad Street tune into something subtle and moving.

2. Stevie NicksBelle Fleur
Okay, I just wrote four paragraphs of background about Stevie’s 24 Karat Gold album, then realized that they’re supposed to go in my article about the album itself. Robby doesn’t know it yet (as I write this), but I’m assigning that album to him next.

Meanwhile, a few words about this song. It’s an example of a song that I’ve had in demo form for decades, but never really connected with that much. This re-recording, on the other hand, moves me a lot. To me, it’s a story of love and magic, but not magic love — it’s no ticket to dreamland. What it is, though, is an exchange of stories, and a sharing of lives — you sing to me, and I’ll sing to you.

3. Joe JacksonOde To Joy
Speaking of new albums from old friends, I just saw Joe Jackson in concert in October, touring to support his new record Fast Forward. This was my favorite song he played that night, and my favorite from the new CD. I love its wholehearted embrace of joy, joy as a pure experience unfettered by the material and phenomenological planes. The New Yorker did a wonderful profile of Joe, and one of my favorite parts of that is this quote:

Some of my early stuff was infected by the deadly disease of cynicism, which is a disease of the young, I think. When you’re young, it seems very clever to be cynical. But as you get older, hopefully, if you’re not completely stupid, you realize that you have to be a bit more positive, as a simple matter of survival.

I happened to listen to this album right before reviewing Don Henley’s Cass County, and Joe’s optimism is a lovely contrast to some the harshness on display there. And being Joe, he cleverly quotes Beethoven in the bargain.

4. Elvis CostelloMystery Dance
I wonder if the kind of world that could produce this song is gone forever. Can sex still be mysterious when so much information about it is so easily retrieved? Sure, there’s a world of difference between reading about something and doing it, and lots of what’s out there could warp a kid’s perceptions and blur the difference between fantasy and reality, but there was a time in living memory when you could try and try and still be mystified. Does that happen anymore?

5. The ClashDeath Or Glory
I can hardly say more about this than I did in my London Calling post. Suffice it to say that I put it on repeat in my car for a day, and never got sick of it. And I drive a lot! It’s as energizing the 20th time as it was the first.

6. Fleetwood MacSongbird (live)
This last year was a special one for Fleetwood Mac fans, because we saw something we never thought we’d see again: Chrstine McVie touring with the band. I actually saw them in December 2014 *and* April 2015, which is why there are two songs from the set list on this CD. In April, she didn’t play “Songbird” — apparently she was dealing with some kind of injury, because it came back to the set later. She played it in December though, and it’s just the most perfect set closer. I never got the chance to see Fleetwood Mac in its prime — my first FM show was the 1987 tour where they replaced Lindsey with two other guitarists, and my first time seeing the classic lineup was in 1997. That was also my last time until now. It was such a joy to hear this song at the end of the show. This recording is from 1977, and was included in the Rumours expanded edition that they released a couple of years ago. [The YouTube clip I linked to above is from a different 1977 show — I couldn’t find the expanded edition one online.]

7. Tori AmosPromise
I’ve been a Tori Amos fan for a long time now, so I was aware that she had a daughter named Tash. But that wasn’t uppermost in my mind while I was listening to her new album Unrepentant Geraldines this year. So when I heard this song, I could tell it was a duet, but I didn’t recognize the other voice — all I could hear was that it was somebody who had a lot on common with Tori vocally. As I listened to the lyrics, discerning that this was a conversation between mother and daughter, I started to wonder, “Could this be Tash?” And sure enough, it is. That realization sent chills through me. Tash was born on 2000, so she was probably 13 when this song was recorded. Given that, it’s a remarkable performance, and as a parent I find the lyrics very moving.

8. Roger McGuinnIf We Never Meet Again
I revisited McGuinn’s album Back From Rio this year — I’ve always liked his twelve-string guitar sound, and this is my favorite of his non-Byrds releases. This time around, “If We Never Meet Again” latched onto me. The tone is just golden, and the message of acceptance for whatever may come sits well with me.

9. Best CoastEach And Everyday
I came across this band on a Fleetwood Mac tribute album done by a bunch of indie groups, called Just Tell Me That You Want Me. There were lots of great covers on that album, but Best Coast’s version of “Rhiannon” really grabbed me, mainly I think because of singer Bethany Cosentino’s voice. So I sought to know more about them and ended up quite enjoying both of their first two albums. (I haven’t got their third yet, but it’s on my wish list.) This is a track from their debut.

10. The ClashThe Card Cheat
There are so many great things about this song, but it has to start with the production. Contrary to what you might expect from a punk band, this song is as well-produced as any pop gem. The ringing piano, valedictory horns, majestic rhythm section — it’s like a classic Phil Spector “Wall Of Sound” record, infused with a cathedral grandeur. Wedding this incredible sound to the tale of a lowlife gambler is like the aural version of a Scorsese film, elevating the dismal criminal world to an operatic level.

11. Paul F. TompkinsKing Hat
My friend Tashi put me onto this comedian, whose records I just adore. Many of his bits have now become part of the conceptual vocabulary in my mind, especially the ones from his most recent album Laboring Under Delusions, which is a concept piece about all the various jobs he’s done in his life. I listened to that album a bunch over this last year, and knew I wanted to include something from it. I had a hard time picking. I went with this one because a) it’s a great showcase for his style, b) it’s a linguistic rant, which I find endearing, and c) it reminds me so much of the stories Laura tells me about her retail-esque experiences at the library. Oh, and because it’s so freakin’ funny, of course.

12. Macklemore & Ryan Lewis feat. Mary LambertSame Love
Here’s another album I spent an awful lot of time with over the last year. I was a bit late to the Macklemore party, but boy The Heist is great. A number of songs from it got thrown into the hopper for this mix, but if I had to pick just one (and, it turned out, I did), it’d be “Same Love.” I so appreciate the personal story flowing into the cultural analysis, and the strong, clear call for hip-hop to stand behind marriage equality. Damn right I support it.

13. Dan WilsonFree Life
Dan Wilson was the lead singer and writer of the 90’s band Semisonic, who were a one-hit wonder with the song “Closing Time.” It’s a shame that they never found greater success, because Wilson is an absolutely brilliant songwriter, who did amazing work with Semisonic and then went on to co-write such killer songs as Adele’s “Someone Like You” and the Dixie Chicks’ “Not Ready To Make Nice.” This song is from his 2007 solo debut, and it stands out for me this year because my iPod dialed it up as I was driving back from New Mexico, having just participated in the 2015 Geek Bowl in Albuquerque. It felt so perfect for that specific moment in my life that I put it on repeat a few times, just listening to the music and feeling free.

14. Elton JohnRocket Man (I Think It’s Going To Be A Long Long Time)
Sometimes a classic just jumps out and reminds you why it’s a classic. I was listening to Honky Château in the car, and when this song came on I marveled at how intensely gorgeous it is. Plus, it’s a fantastic song to sing along to, which is probably why I sang it over and over on that 45-minute commute.

15. Elliott SmithJunk Bond Trader
I’ve had XO in my collection for a while, and while I enjoy it, I never really imprinted on it. Figure 8, on the other hand, knocked me out. So many great songs on that album — as with Macklemore, there were a bunch in the running and it came down to this one. The lyrics to this are so fantastic — elliptical and evocative, with the occasional razor-sharp one liner, like “Checking into a small reality / Boring as a drug you take too regularly.” What’s it about? I really don’t know. But I sure do dig how it’s about it.

16. Fleetwood MacSisters Of The Moon
This was the highlight of the April 2015 Fleetwood Mac show. It’s always been one of my favorite Stevie songs — I love the power chord progression and the mystical vibe. She can’t hit those high notes any more (the backup singers do it for her), and the cocaine-fueled frenzy that used to characterize live performances of this song is long behind her, but still, it is a powerful, spellbinding incantation, and it lifts me up every time I see it.

17. Florence + The MachineDog Days Are Over
Speaking of powerful. Ceremonials was a big record for me in 2014, so I decided to check out Florence’s debut as well, and I’m glad I did. There’s a reason this song got so famous. I love rock songs with big drums and a big voice like this — they make me feel like I’m flying.

18. Best CoastThe Only Place
Here’s a song from Best Coast’s second album. True to their name, it’s a paean to California, and I have to say they make a pretty good case. Especially for somebody like me who could be perfectly happy never seeing snow again, Southern California seems like a pretty amazing place to live. Oh, except for the earthquakes. And, I guess the mudslides. And the forest fires. And how expensive everything is. But other than that, aces!

19. Fountains Of WayneBright Future In Sales
One final showcase from another album I really got into in 2014. My friend Trish has been a huge FoW fan for ages, and always told me I should check them out. You know how it is with that kind of thing, though — I’d always think, “Yeah, I should,” and then go listen to something I already know. That’s the beauty of the wishlist, though. I can just tag something based on a passing thought, and then some angel will bring it into my life, where I can give it the attention it deserves. This album, Welcome Interstate Managers, dominated my car for about 3 weeks, and I got to love each and every song on it. There were a bunch to choose from, but this one does a great job of encapsulating the humor, the characterization, the storytelling, and the awesome power pop slam that Fountains Of Wayne brings to its music.

Album Assignments: The Velvet Underground & Nico

The Velvet Underground & Nico is one of those albums about which a lot has been written. Most of it, I haven’t read. I know the Brian Eno quip about how only a few thousand people bought it, but each one started a band. Other than that, I haven’t taken the class. I’ve listened to the songs an awful lot over the years, but that’s all. Consequently, I’m a bit self-conscious of the fact that I am highly unlikely to have an original thought about it.

With that disclaimer out of the way, here’s what’s in my head. One of the most striking things about this record, to me, is the fact that it was released in 1967. Yet not only does it sound (almost) completely contemporary, it would be a challenging and avant-garde album even today. Not only was it way ahead of its time, I think it’s still pretty well ahead of ours.

Musically, I identify 1967 with Jefferson Airplane, Sgt. Pepper’s, the Summer Of Love. Yet this record seems like it came from another planet altogether, and perhaps it did. The album radiates New York City, and mostly not the pretty parts either. The Velvet Underground’s New York feels like the yin to 1967 San Francisco’s yang. Where the Frisco vibe was laid-back, open, and loving, New York is tense, paranoid, and angry. Where the hippies wanted to save the world with peace, Lou Reed’s characters mostly want to annihilate themselves or each other. And where the primary theme of the Summer Of Love is freedom, the primary theme of this album is pressure. Both states can produce remarkable accomplishments, and in 1967, both did.

Album cover for The Velvet Underground And Nico

They’re worlds apart musically as well. Where the California sound was all about pretty chiming and blues tropes, The Velvet Underground & Nico is redolent with atonal shrieks, shatters, bangs, and staggers. The song structures are often bizarre — take “European Son”, whose lyrics run out about seven minutes before its music does. Much of that music careens crazily up and down non-traditional scales, veering into feedback and hyperactive hemidemisemiquavers, in front of a guitar strumming over and over and over on the same chord, until it’s more of a drone than a rhythm. In fact, some kind of drone comes up in a lot of the VU’s songs on this collection — it’s behind “Venus In Furs”, “All Tomorrow’s Parties”, “Heroin”, “Femme Fatale”, and more. It’s kind of their signature sound here.

Speaking of drone, let’s talk about Nico. This may be heretical, but I’m not sure her presence is a net gain for the record. Her vocals are certainly interesting, and often surprising, but their effect on the songs tends to be odd and distancing, generally to the detriment of the overall experience. “I’ll Be Your Mirror” fares the worst — it’s far and away the sweetest song on the album, but her frosty tone dampens its warmth, and her heavy German accent makes the gorgeous words harder to understand. Similarly, the lyrics to “All Tomorrow’s Parties” read on the page as compassionate, or at least pitying, but out of Nico’s mouth they sound contemptuous. That tone works better on “Femme Fatale”, which really is a sneering song, one that perhaps sounds a smidgen less misogynist when sung by a woman.

On the other hand, Lou Reed inhabits these characters with a marvelous intensity. That little laugh in “Heroin”, after “it’s my wife and it’s my life”, encapsulates the junkie’s longed-for detachment, finally achieved via a spike in the vein. Or how the obsequious “Oh pardon me sir, it’s furthest from my mind” in “Waiting For The Man” brings across the nervousness of the character while slyly upending the more common racial accusation.

“Venus In Furs” is probably the song that captivated me most this time around. While plenty of the other tunes explore darkness, this song finds a beauty and even a healing in sexual masochism. It has to be one of the first sympathetic portrayals of BDSM in rock — even now not a terribly crowded field in any medium. “Strike dear mistress, and cure his heart” pierces straight to the center of a crucial truth for submissive masochists — that the touch of the whip brings relief, release, and comfort. Sure, endorphins are a part of it, but on an emotional level that willing submission to pain allows them to befriend it, even control it, rather than letting it control them.

That’s a different kind of insight for a 1967 album, and the Velvet Underground pull it off so brilliantly. Almost makes me want to start a band.

Album Assignments: 24 Karat Gold – Songs From The Vault

For decades now, Stevie Nicks fans like me have been passing around demos for her dozens and dozens of unreleased songs. She’s a very prolific writer, but on a Fleetwood Mac album she shares with two other writers, she might get to release 3 songs every 3 years. Her solo career opened the gates a bit more, but even that was derailed after a while by her long tranquilizer addiction, her commitment to Fleetwood Mac recording and touring, and her difficulty finding a producer who would enhance her rough work rather than distorting it. Meanwhile, that meant that there were all these great songs from the 70s and 80s that never found a home.

She kicked the tranquilizers in the mid-90s, but it wasn’t until 2010 that she formed a musical partnership with Dave Stewart (formerly of The Eurythmics) that made her excited about recording again. And in 2014, with Stewart and longtime guitarist Waddy Wachtel as co-producers, she released an album that fans had been waiting for: studio recordings of a bunch of those long-lost demos. Ironically, while I always felt a little bad about the bootlegs, it was their presence on YouTube which reminded her of the songs’ existence in the first place, and inspired her to re-record them.

The resulting record 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault, is almost everything I hoped it would be. Nicks’ re-recordings of her old songs can be a mixed bag, especially when Lindsey Buckingham is producing. On the Say You Will Fleetwood Mac album from 2003, there were several songs that I’d loved for years, but on some of them, particularly “Smile At You,” I still much prefer the demo. On the other hand, her new version of “Goodbye Baby” (known to fans as “The Tower”) had an unbelievably emotional hushed vocal, and despite some kinda banal new lyrics, was a marvelous version of the song. (Though the demo is still one of my all-time favorites.)

Her solo stuff tended to fare better, and both Trouble In Shangri-La and In Your Dreams had excellent versions of previously unreleased songs. 24 Karat Gold is a whole album of that stuff, and for the most part, it is wonderful. Hearing propulsive full-band versions of previously bland or poor-quality demos is a revelation, and many of the songs are vastly improved by this treatment. Also, pieces of tunes that seemed half-formed are now fleshed out and clear. The only thing I wish is that for some of those songs which already had a very good demo, we could somehow have a vocal from the Stevie of the era in which they were written. Nicks’ voice has grown deeper and throatier over the years, and while it suits many songs, it doesn’t suit all of them.

Album cover of 24 Karat Gold: Songs From The Vault

So that means it’s time for another taxonomy:

Songs that outshine the demos

  • “Starshine”: I love what Dave Stewart and Stevie do with this song. The demo always seemed fine to me, but I never really connected with it. This version, though, makes it all clear, the way it builds up to a shouted “wrong!” – it’s a cautionary tale about cheating, told from three points of view. Fantastic beat, groovy solo, joyful vocal. Just a great, tight track.
  • “Mabel Normand”: This is one of the most dramatic improvements. The demo is muttery, meandering — almost unlistenable, for me. I was quite surprised to see it in the track list, but here it sounds awesome, and tells a clear, compelling story. Normand takes her place alongside Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich as celluloid heroines who Stevie identifies as kindred spirits and inspirations.
  • “Blue Water”: Quick sidebar story here. This is one of the first Stevie demos I ever heard, back in the pre-Internet days. My freshman year of college, I went to NYU and learned to prowl all the record stores in lower Manhattan. I was stunned to discover bootleg records filed right alongside regular releases, especially since I’d worked for a suburban record store my last year of high school, where no such thing would ever be permitted. So when I saw these albums called “Uncirculated Rumours” in the Stevie section, I snatched them right up, and heard my first unreleased songs — this one and a few others, most of which still have not seen the light of day. “Blue Water” always felt a little blah to me — nice melody repeated a lot. The song is still the same, but a studio gloss and an assist from Lady Antebellum does wonders for the tune.
  • “All The Beautiful Worlds”: This is another one that always felt kind of ethereal to me in its demo form — my mind would always wander when I heard it. Now, when I heard it again after searching for the YouTube link, I think perhaps it may have been a victim of a poor transfer. Many of these demos came to me via cassettes that were god-only-knows how many generations removed from their master copies, and consequently sounded quiet, muffled, and flat. It didn’t matter to me when collecting them — better a crummy tape of a new-to-me Stevie song than no copy at all! But over time, some of them started to feel a bit more skippable to me. In any case, this studio version brings a vibrancy to the song that I never heard in it before.
  • “24 Karat Gold”: What a wonderful choice to lead with that strong bass line, then layer in the mystical-sounding Fleetwood Mac guitars. When Stevie sings “Set me free, set me free” on the demo, it sounds like a plea. On this track, it sounds like a demand, and the song is far stronger for it. This is a perfect example of a song she’s grown into — her voice today makes it sound like wisdom and reflection, whereas before it sounded more like abstract storytelling.
  • “If You Were My Love”: This is a pretty simple song, musically — a picking pattern on the guitar with a fairly repetitive melody on top of it. On the demo it sounds kind of barely-there. This version, though, takes that basic skeleton and adds lots of cool ornamentation — background vocals, strings, extra guitar parts, harmonies. Fleshed out like this, it becomes much more enjoyable.
  • “Belle Fleur”: This is probably my favorite example of how this record is just a godsend to fans. “Belle Fleur” was just one of a hundred demos to me, nothing that ever stood out too much. Here, though, it absolutely shines — Stevie and Dave bring out every ounce of the song’s potential, and end up with a fabulous track. I included it in my 2015 music mix, and wrote about it in those notes, so I’ll save the rest for that.

Songs that are about even with the demos

  • “The Dealer”: This is a hard one. It’s my favorite song that she hadn’t yet released, and when I heard about this project, I really hoped she’d release it. But part of the reason it’s my favorite is because the demos sound so crazy good, and have such fierce, Bella Donna-era vocals. 65-year-old Stevie is still a great vocalist, but she does not deliver on some of the stuff that 30-year-old Stevie could do. Consequently, the song is a bit slower, with the high notes modulated down, which is really a shame. But still, I love this song, and having a studio version of it is great, even if it lacks some of the power I’d hoped for. I love it too much to say it falls short.
  • “Lady”: I knew this song as “Knockin’ On Doors” for ages, and always liked the melody. On the other hand, it always kind of seemed like half a song to me. It’s got a solid chorus, a pretty bridge tune, and a verse. I hoped that a studio version would be more developed, and it sort of is, except what it basically does is repeats that whole thing a few times. It gets a little monotonous, lovely as it is.
  • “She Loves Him Still”: Here’s the thing: I just don’t like this song very much. I find the demo almost interminably whiny — it feels like a strung-out, helpless, middle-of-the-night lament from a really dysfunctional person. Here it sounds like a calm, composed lament from a really dysfunctional person. They feel equivalent to me because I really don’t care for either. Kind of wish this one had stayed on the shelf.

Songs that fall short of the demos

  • “Cathouse Blues”: The demo to this is one of my favorite Stevie demos of all time, a delightfully different kind of song for her from the Buckingham Nicks period. I love the mischievious edge it has, and her voice on it sounds so young and innocent, which is a great contrast with the lyrics. In the 24KG version, we don’t get that contrast, because her voice can’t sound young and innocent anymore. It’s nice to have it on an official release at last, and the dixieland band portion is a lot of fun, but what a missed opportunity to never have released the song when it could have had maximum effect.
  • “Watch Chain”: Kind of the same story on this one, except this time the problem is the production. The original is a Bella Donna-era song with a gorgeous bass-heavy folk rock sound — a very intimate and laid back feeling. Now, I usually like Dave Stewart’s production quite a lot on Stevie songs, but here it lands with a heavy thud. He inexplicably cranks up the fuzz, adding grungy guitars and speeding up the song. Stevie’s thicker current voice does nothing to lighten up the feeling. These musical choices work against the gentle, musing lyrics, and kind of torpedo this version of the song.
  • “Twisted”: 24 Karat Gold supposedly focuses on unreleased treasures, but in this case, it’s actually Stevie’s third time releasing this song. It came out the first time on the soundtrack for the 1996 movie Twister, as a duet with Lindsey Buckingham. It was exciting at the time to hear the two of them together — it’d been almost a decade — but the version was really kind of leaden. A better take was released on 1998 Stevie’s box set Enchanted, and was actually listed as a demo. It sounded polished enough, though, that it’s plenty enjoyable to listen to on its own. This version is a little more produced than that demo, and of course Stevie sounds 20 years older. It’s kind of fun to compare them, but I still prefer the one from Enchanted.

Songs that don’t have an associated demo

  • “I Don’t Care”: This one was new to me, although I think it’s an old song. It’s kind of a weird outlier for Stevie’s writing, much grittier than her usual mode of expression — thematically reminiscent of “I Don’t Wanna Know” from Rumours. It’s far from my favorite song on the album, but I do like the way it switches from angry to vulnerable and back again.
  • “Carousel”: This is a cover of a Vanessa Carlton song. Stevie has seemingly taken Vanessa under her wing a bit, and consequently Vanessa was a part of her life as Stevie’s mother Barbara was dying. In her final days, Barbara just wanted to hear them sing this song, so Stevie and Vanessa sing it on this album as a tribute. It’s a pretty song, and makes a sweet addition to this collection.
  • “Hard Advice”: I think this is my favorite of the new-to-me songs on 24 Karat Gold. Who knows what it’s really about, but for me it brings to mind Stevie’s lifelong difficult connection to Lindsey, with the other “famous friend” being Tom Petty. It’s a matter of record that Tom Petty sat Stevie down and gave her some hard advice on her songwriting — that conversation is the subject of “That Made Me Stronger” from Trouble In Shangri-La. I don’t find it hard to believe at all that he told her she needs to get over Lindsey and start writing songs about something new. The lyrics to this one are wonderfully crafted — the “sometimes he’s my best friend / even when he’s not around” shifts focus, first applying to Lindsey and then to Tom. (In my made-up narrative, that is.) There’s also a great subtle callback to “Silver Springs” — “the sound of his voice / well it follows me down / and reminds me” is an affecting reversal of her promise in that song: “I’ll follow you down til the sound of my voice will haunt you.”

Album Assignments: Blue

I don’t know if Robby knows this, but he keeps picking things that have challenged me in some way or another in the past. There’s Elvis Costello, who has negative personal associations for me. There’s the Don Henley country album, which is, y’know, a country album.

Now there’s Joni Mitchell’s Blue. During my teens and twenties, when my musical taste was forming, I just could not tolerate Mitchell’s voice. It’s an idiosyncratic instrument, prone to swoop low and then swing wildly high, within the space of a few notes, and something about it got under my skin. I didn’t mind “Help Me”, but the rest of her material simply did not work for me.

That has changed. I’ve got Adult Onset Joni Mitchell Appreciation Syndrome, and I remember exactly how it kicked in. About 15 years ago, I was Christmas shopping at a store in Boulder that’s long gone now. They had music playing, and I was struck by how amazingly good it sounded. Dizzyingly good. Even setting the vocals and lyrics aside for a moment, every note had this diamond-pure quality. It sounded like one or two people, playing beautifully in your living room. Clean, sweet, perfect. I asked the clerk what it was, and you can probably guess the answer: Blue, by Joni Mitchell.

Album cover of Blue

The album still sounds like that to me. I’m still just astounded at its simple intimacy. Something locked into place for me that day, and now Mitchell’s voice belongs in that intoxicating sound, in a way no other voice would. The highs and lows she takes it through are a perfect match for the bittersweetness of these songs.

Listening to the album again this week, I was struck by Mitchell’s ability to capture a tiny moment, and use it as a camera obscura that projects a bigger emotional picture. In “A Case Of You”, there’s a little story, and a little image. A bit of dialogue from a fight, and Mitchell sitting at a bar, drawing a map of Canada on the back of a coaster, with her lover’s face sketched on it. This little image anchors the chorus, placing its emotional declarations in a context that feels so real. It doesn’t just feel like I’m there with her — it feels like I’m the one at the bar, drawing on the coaster.

“This Flight Tonight” does the same thing — Mitchell sitting on an airplane, drinking champagne with the headphones on. (An image echoed poignantly in Liz Phair’s “Stratford-On-Guy.”) “Up go the flaps, down go the wheels,” and in rush love, longing, regret, doubt, excitement, yearning, fear. So many of these songs place the bitter and the sweet right next to each other, creating a potent ache:

  • “You got the touch so gentle and sweet / But you’ve got that look so critical / I can’t talk to you baby / I get so weak / Sometimes I think love is just mythical”
  • “Oh, you’re a mean old Daddy, but I like you fine”
  • “Applause, applause — life is our cause / When I think of your kisses / My mind see-saws / Do you see — do you see — do you see / How you hurt me baby / So I hurt you too / Then we both get so blue”

Perhaps the best example of mundane images reflecting deep emotional pain is “The Last Time I Saw Richard.” The first two verses tell a story that sets up an argument, with Richard arguing that all romance is a path to despair, while Joni insists that “love can be so sweet.” It’s that last verse that’s the killer, but it starts almost comically ordinary: “Richard got married to a figure skater, / And he bought her a dishwasher and a coffee percolater.” But then comes the gut punch: “And he drinks at home now most nights with the TV on / And all the house lights left up bright.”

He took her advice, and now here he is, right where he said he’d be. And now she is too, blowing the candle out at her cafe table, angry and sad and drunk, with nothing to say to anybody. And yet her last words, the last words of the album, allow yet for hope: “Only a dark cocoon before I get my gorgeous wings / And fly away / Only a phase, these dark cafe days.”

It’s the perfect ending note, on an album full of perfect notes.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 18 – A Real Rain

Hey, you. Yes, I’m talkin’ to you, because I want you to know that there are spoilers in here, both for Watchmen and for Martin Scorsese’s 1976 film Taxi Driver. We’re talkin’ about Taxi Driver today because of one cjb@ice.physics.salford.ac.uk, who turns out to be named Christian Burnham. Burnham contributed to the v2.0 Watchmen Annotations, those annotations being a crowdsourced effort built atop Doug Atkinson’s original work. Burnham was the one who asserted way back in my first installment that “Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards,” and that “Rorschach’s methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies.”

This time around, he claims that “Rorschach’s opener on page 1 issue 1 is a dead ringer for the dialogue of Travis Bickle in the film Taxi Driver.” Burnham has a tendency to overstate the case, and this time is no exception. While it’s true that both Rorschach and Bickle (Robert De Niro) keep a diary, and that their diary entries are provided in “voiceover” to give us insight into their minds, I wouldn’t call one a “dead ringer” for the other. There are definitely similarities, but also some important differences. Let’s compare styles.

Rorschach: “Dog carcass in alley this morning, tire tread on burst stomach. This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face. The streets are extended gutters and the gutters are full of blood and when the drains finally scab over, all the vermin will drown. The accumulated filth of all their sex and murder will foam up about their waists and all the whores and politicians will look up and shout ‘Save us!’… and I’ll look down and whisper ‘No.'”

Bickle: “All the animals come out at night – whores, skunk pussies, buggers, queens, fairies, dopers, junkies. Sick, venal. Someday a real rain’ll come and wash all this scum off the streets. I go all over. I take people to the Bronx, Brooklyn, I take ’em to Harlem. I don’t care. Don’t make no difference to me. It does to some. Some won’t even take spooks. Don’t make no difference to me.”

Both these excerpts begin with shocking language and images. Both indicate a loathing and revulsion for the urban environment. But Rorschach’s opening sentence imitates his speech patterns — clipped sentence fragments, with articles and pronouns extracted, an almost Tonto-ish way of talking. Moore in fact uses this pattern as a tool later on to indicate the psychological split between when Walter Kovacs simply wore a mask and when he became Rorschach, as well as the psychological shift in Malcolm Long.

Interestingly, the rest of the excerpt (and most of Rorschach’s diary) is much more discursive than his usual speech. He spins grandiose, almost biblical images, like this one in which he stands as the vengeful god to punish human sins. Elsewhere, he documents the city as he sees it, or takes notes on the murder case. He even tells a joke.

First 3 panels of Watchmen, with Rorschach's dialogue as quoted above

Travis, on the other hand, is much more prosaic and down-to-earth. He talks about what happens in his job, how much he makes, and recounts details like “I had black coffee and apple pie with a slice of melted yellow cheese.” His diction is slangy and vernacular (not to mention casually racist and homophobic), where Rorschach tends toward theatrical, elevated words. Travis would never say something like, “This city is afraid of me. I have seen its true face.” When his diary entries become introspective, they tend to be vulnerable and searching, as opposed to Rorschach’s judgmental pronouncements. Travis reviles the city, sure, but he also explicitly laments his loneliness, something Rorschach only barely approaches when he asks (without a trace of irony), “Why are so few of us left active, healthy, and without personality disorders?”

However, just because Rorschach’s journal isn’t a “dead ringer” for Travis’s diary doesn’t mean that the comparison between Watchmen and Taxi Driver is pointless. On the contrary, I think it’s a very useful juxtaposition, one which illuminates them both.

THE NEW NOIR

Taxi Driver gets called a neo-noir film, a term which more or less means “a whole lot like film noir but made after 1958.” (See Hirsch and Schwartz, for example.) The notion of film noir itself has never enjoyed a stable, consensus definition, and in fact there is still contention over, for instance, whether it’s a style or a genre. But like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s relationship to pornography, critics know it when they see it.

Here are some film noir commonplaces:

  • A mood of pessimism, cynicism, and/or fatalism
  • Night scenes, especially night scenes in a city
  • Rain. Lots and lots of rain.
  • Also lots of smoke and smoking
  • Femmes fatales. As Roger Ebert puts it, “Women who would just as soon kill you as love you, and vice versa.”
  • An ordinary person drawn into crime, often based on some relationship with a femme fatale
  • A grim investigator unraveling a crime, an investigation which often reveals deep corruption
  • Odd or askew camera angles
  • Shadowy or high-contrast visual composition
  • Flashbacks, particularly telling the bulk of the movie in flashback, introduced by a frame story
  • First-person voiceover narration

A movie doesn’t have to have all of these to be considered noir, but the more of them that occur in one movie, the more noir it becomes. Once I started thinking about Taxi Driver as a noir movie, it became blindingly obvious to me that Watchmen is a noir comic book, or at the very least that Rorschach is a noir character, right down to his 1940s trenchcoat and fedora. While his narration differs from that of Travis, the presence of their narration serves the same set of functions. It sets the grim tenor of the story but makes it clear that the mood is filtered through one character’s mind, and that this character is himself unreliable and twisted in certain aspects.

The juxtaposition of narration and images allows us sometimes to see the story’s world as the character sees it, and other times to understand through ironic contrast where the character’s perceptions are limited, or where he may be lying to himself or others. And as both Taxi Driver and Watchmen postdate the classic film noir period, they are fully aware of noir conventions and use voiceover as a kind of combination homage and allegiance.

They have plenty in common with the noir sensibility besides the voiceover, too. Both have an overall sinister tone, and both end with a psychopathic character unexpectedly cast in a heroic light. Both stalk the rainy night city, Travis in his cab and Rorschach on foot. Smoke, too, figures into each story in different ways. None of the characters in Taxi Driver smoke, but mist and steam emanates from the streets themselves — the first several shots in the film include a taxi emerging from a cloud of smoke (along with the title itself), and that same smoke following Travis as he walks into the cab service to apply for a job.

Lots of characters smoke in Watchmen. In just the first two chapters, we see Detective Fine, Hollis Mason, various criminals, restaurant patrons, Laurie Juspeczyk, and Eddie Blake smoking various types of cigarettes or cigars. In addition to his stogie, Blake also shoots riot gas to smoke up the streets, and makes Captain Metropolis’ map go up in smoke as well. However, the smokiest thing about the book is easily Rorschach’s dialogue balloons. The character is never seen with a cigarette, but every time he talks or thinks, the edges of his words crinkle and curl, an ever-present noir vapor.

Shot from Taxi Driver with title emerging from smoke, next to panel from Watchmen showing Rorschach's smoky dialogue balloon

Femmes fatales, on the other hand, are noticeably missing from both works. I’ve already discussed the role of women overall in Watchmen: they mainly exist to demonstrate or alter male emotional states. That is somewhat true for the classic femme fatale as well, but in Watchmen the women are more victims than masterminds. No woman is calling the shots on anything in that story, but rather stumbling or being thrown from one mishap to another. Even Janey Slater, clearly embittered and smoking up a storm, turns out to have been Adrian’s pawn in her takedown of Dr. Manhattan.

Women in Taxi Driver are filtered through Travis’s consciousness, which will only allow for two categories: virgin and whore. He can hardly bear either one. He idolizes what he sees as the purity and elevation of Betsy (Cybill Shepherd), and even manages to take her out on a date, only to make the site of their date a porno theater, as if he must taint that purity and expose the taintedness of his own inner self. Then he fixates upon a different mix of virgin and whore: the twelve-year-old prostitute Iris (Jodie Foster). Where he wanted to sully Betsy’s innocence, he wants to restore Iris’s, trying to convince her to go back home, and sending her $500 to help her leave her pimp Sport (Harvey Keitel). In neither case does he engage with the woman in question as a person, but rather interacts almost exclusively with his projections of them.

No, it isn’t a femme fatale who draws Travis into mass murder. Rather, it is his utter inability to connect with other human beings. Whether this disconnection is an aftereffect of service in Vietnam, or whether it is inherent to Travis himself, the film doesn’t make clear. However, his “loneliness has followed me all my life” voiceover suggests that while Vietnam may have stoked his inclination to violence, Travis’s fundamental alienation is his own.

De Niro does a masterful job of building upon screenwriter Paul Schrader’s script to demonstrate Travis’s utter lack of facility with simple personal interactions. He’s baffled by simple expressions like “moonlighting” or “how’s it hangin’?”. He’s culturally isolated — at various points he says he doesn’t know much about movies, much about music. He watches his television periodically, with a look of longing and confusion on his face; eventually he pushes that TV off its stand, destroying it. In a knowing twist on noir convention, Travis tries to kill the father figures of his various women, not at their urging, but as a sort of revenge for the relationships they have, which he is forever denied.

Watchmen takes the other noir plot — not the common man corrupted but the cynical detective whose astute investigations soon land him in trouble beyond his capacity to deal with. Moore begins the story as a standard murder mystery, and in fact for a moment we believe we might be following the police investigation of Eddie Blake’s death. Soon enough we are following Rorschach, but even then, the pattern of introducing a series of characters and providing background on the deceased is a familiar one to mystery readers. Watchmen turns out to have a lot more on its mind than just solving a crime, but at least from Rorschach’s point of view, his trajectory is not all that different from that of the classic Phillip Marlowe or J.J. Gittes type, the private eye whose own investigation devastates and undoes him.

As for visual style, both Watchmen and Taxi Driver employ enough shadows and unsettling angles to easily qualify as neo-noir. Taxi Driver gives us shots of Travis’s eyes in the rear-view mirror, framed by blackness. It shows us fetishized close-ups of the taxi itself, driving through the rain, with garish Times Square movie marquees and porn store signs in the background. There’s a motif of high-angle shots straight down on a tableau – the personnel officer’s desk, the porn theater counter, the gun suitcase, Betsy’s desk. These culminate in a magnificent high-angle shot of the mass murder scene, moving slowly past the heads of stunned policemen, down the hallway and out into the street.

High angle shot from Taxi Driver of the murder scene

That same high angle appears in Watchmen‘s very first set of panels, the ones with the narration that started us down this road. The camera looks down at the bloodstained street, gradually pulling up, up, up to the site of Blake’s defenestration. Weird camera angles and shadowy composition abound especially (and not surprisingly) in the portions of Watchmen focused on Rorschach.

In Chapter 5, “Fearful Symmetry”, we get a recurring shot of the Rumrunner’s neon sign, reflected in a puddle, disturbed by Rorschach’s footstep. It’s a perfect noir shot, encompassing rain, darkness, the sinister city, and a sense of foreboding and destruction. Rorschach’s mask itself is the ultimate in high-contrast, its shadows always moving across his face. This effect is played up in “The Abyss Gazes Also”, whose penultimate panel is in fact nothing but blackness.

Finally, there are the flashbacks. Taxi Driver has none — it refuses to explain Travis by exploring his past, and it almost exclusively sticks to his point of view, denying us the capacity of understanding his world beyond his perception of it. Watchmen, on the other hand, is flashback-crazy. Whole chapters take us into the backstory of various characters, and previous chapters get called back by later chapters. Even single panels sometimes quickly throw us back to the past before returning to the scene at hand. Both, in their way, subvert the traditional noir mode of a frame story taking us into the past, either by sticking zenlike in the present or jumping around through time all the time.

Still, while neither Watchmen nor Taxi Driver ticks every box on the film noir checklist, there is more than enough evidence to call them both noir stories. But there’s something more: they’re also both superhero stories.

THE URBAN VIGILANTE

There are many ways to interpret the plot of Taxi Driver. Here’s one. An ordinary man, Travis Bickle, takes a blue-collar job after returning from war. This job brings him in contact with the worst parts of New York City. He sees firsthand the violence, the constant menace, the routine attacks upon innocent people, including attacks upon Travis himself. He witnesses the sleaze and degradation occurring in the city at night, and it becomes clear to him that the establishment police and politicians are fundamentally unable to stem its tide. He even connects with a heartbreaking victim of the city’s evil: a twelve-year-old girl named Iris, forced into prostitution by a pimp named Sport. That pimp pays Travis $20 to look the other way.

This $20 bill becomes a totem to Travis. He carries it with him, plagued by his guilt about not saving Iris from her dangerous situation. Finally, he makes up his mind to make a difference. “The idea had been growing in my brain for some time,” he writes in his diary. “True force.” He embarks on an intense regimen of physical training, honing his body until every muscle is tight, and he is nearly impervious to pain. He purchases an arsenal of weaponry, and rigs up ways to attach those weapons to his body, deploying them quickly when needed. He puts together a uniform which allows him to conceal the equipment he carries. “Here is a man who would not take it anymore,” he writes.

Shot from Taxi Driver of the device Travis rigs up to hide a gun in his sleeve and slide it out when he wants to use it.

He uses the $20 bill to pay for Iris’ time, in a failed attempt to get her to leave Sport of her own volition. But he finally realizes: he is the one who must rescue her, and save the innocence of the city itself. He creates a new persona and guise, one which will strike fear into the hearts of those he hunts. At first, he tries to bring down the corrupt system by targeting a political demagogue, but he soon realizes that he must go into the underworld directly. Armed with his equipment and his frightening appearance, he defeats Sport and two of Sport’s henchmen. He returns Iris to her parents, and is hailed by them and by the media in general as a hero. Some time later, he has returned to his job in his ordinary identity, but we know that he is ready to confront evil again, whenever he encounters it.

Sounds an awful lot like a superhero origin story, doesn’t it? In a certain light, Travis doesn’t look so different from Bruce Wayne, or Tony Stark, or Frank Castle: men without superhuman powers, but who nonetheless deploy muscles, weapons, and a frightening appearance to fight the crime in their societies. For that matter, he’s even closer to a character like Rorschach, who shares all those qualities with Travis, and a few more as well.

Rorschach’s own origin story touches a lot of those same points. Walter Kovacs comes from a traumatic past and enters a blue-collar job. In the course of that job, he encounters a woman who later becomes the victim of a horrifying crime. Kovacs sees not only the ineffectiveness of standard social structures, but also the impassive detachment of people in general to the evil that surrounds them. He trains his body for strength and endurance, and acquires a set of equipment, a uniform, and a countenance to frighten the criminals he’s chosen to fight. He records his thoughts in a journal, in which he repeats his philosophy to himself. His culminating trip over the edge happens in response to the victimization of a child — his personality finds its fullest cohesion by murdering the victimizer.

Taxi Driver wasn’t meant to serve as a commentary on superhero stories, but it certainly was aware of its cinematic precursors, urban vigilante films like Dirty Harry, Walking Tall, and Death Wish. In those films, a man suffers tragedy and/or witnesses evil, and decides it’s time to work outside the law. He arms himself and slaughters the criminal(s) responsible.

The difference is that in the preceding films, the vigilante is lionized and held as the moral center, in contrast to corrupt or incompetent law enforcement. Schrader applies a corrective to this narrative with Taxi Driver, showing us that the man who kills criminals is himself violently disturbed. In fact, in Taxi Driver Travis simply wants to kill the father figure to one of his women, and tries first to kill the presidential candidate. It’s only because he fails, and ends up killing the pimp, that he is hailed as a hero. Watchmen, too, deeply problematizes the notion of vigilante heroism, in response to a similar romanticization of it in superhero comics. It shows Rorschach, like Travis, to be a deeply lonely man, one who has become insane and dangerous based on his experiences and his disconnection.

Travis Bickle does not understand other human beings. He sees them as objects — threats, idols, barriers. His movies are porn movies, whose entire job is to turn people into objects. Porn lets you project yourself, explicitly, into a sexual interaction. It’s the closest Travis comes to a connection. Rorschach, too, does not relate to other people, and tends to see them as objects, pawns on a board. Moreover, the traditional superhero genre has a hard time understanding human beings as well. It objectifies them into projection screen, threat, barrier, or prize. Watchmen surrounds Rorschach with humans, rather than objects, and by doing so reveals the absurdity of his Objectivism.

Film noir was never concerned with heroism. Its subject was the darker sides of humanity, and how the naive man can be inadvertently drawn into them. Both the urban vigilante film and the superhero genre, however, take heroism as a central theme and trope. By mixing noir into these genres, Taxi Driver and Watchmen leave us questioning those tropes, and understanding that sometimes our cultural perception of good is no more valid than our perception of evil. Travis Bickle looks in the mirror and says, “You talkin’ to me?” But he’s only talking to himself. It’s Scorsese, Schrader, Moore, and Gibbons who are talking to us.

Shots from Watchmen and Taxi Driver of sleazy Times Square

Previous Entry: The Superhuman Crew

Album Assignments: Black Sheets Of Rain

Bob Mould’s 1990 album Black Sheets Of Rain was quite a shock to my system when I first heard it. See, I was never dialed into Hüsker Dü in my teens, so my first exposure to Mould was through his gorgeous, extraordinary album Workbook in 1989. That album blew me away — it was so beautiful, so passionate, and so perfect for what I was going through in my life back then. So I was very eager for Black Sheets Of Rain — I bought it the day it came out, and couldn’t wait to hear it.

Then I heard it. Whoa. I emerged 55 minutes later, bludgeoned and dazed, not quite sure what had happened to me. People, this album is heavy. Layers and layers of buzzing guitar in an intense wall of noise, a sludgy bottom end, and drums like punches to the face. Over all this come Mould’s tortured vocals. A throaty singer even in his tenderest moments, here he was more often than not ragged and hoarse, screaming about sacrifice, betrayal, depression, disappointment.

The one exception is “The Last Night”, which recalls the acoustic sound of Workbook. Everywhere else that acoustic guitars dare to appear on Black Sheets Of Rain, they function as curtains to be swept aside by the electric assault, as in the opening bars of “Hanging Tree”. On “The Last Night”, Mould layers his voice to harmonize with himself, and while he employs that technique throughout the album, everywhere else he uses it to turn his voice into power chords. And where in “The Last Night” he is calmly resolute, most everywhere else he’s either despairing or really, really pissed.

Black Sheets Of Rain album cover

Here’s the thing, though. While I’ll probably always love Workbook more, I find Black Sheets Of Rain an incredibly powerful album, and listening to it 25 years later, it now strikes me as pretty much the perfect album to kick off the 1990s. More than a year before the radio waves got completely Nirvana’d and Pearl Jammed, this album announced the alternative future. Everything about it is grungy, right down to the cover. It bails on the Hüsker Dü hyperactive punk thrash, changing it out for grim marches through forests turning black. It’s got these enormous riffs, surrounding Mould’s voice like canyons, and his words ring through them. Those words are just as angsty as anything Kurt Cobain or Eddie Vedder ever thought of:

Slag heap keeps growing higher
Every morning the sky, it’s on fire
Is there an upside to every downside?
Keep it inside, it’s a downward slide of broken glass
Keeps building in piles
And I don’t know
I don’t know if the sun ever smiles

There’s another dimension to the record, too — hidden in the slag heaps are some amazing pop tunes. “It’s Too Late” even got a fair amount of play on modern rock stations, and with good reason, but there are even better rockers on here. “Out Of Your Life” wouldn’t sound out of place on a P!nk album, and “Hear Me Calling” is both moving and catchy as hell, especially the repeated “you win again” over the fadeout.

But the best track of all is “Stop Your Crying”, an absolutely killer composition delivered with shocking power. The lyrics are excellent, the chorus towering, and Mould’s vocal delivery is revelatory, or perhaps apocalyptic. The verses are fierce but controlled — it’s between them that the action really intensifies. As guitars swoop and swirl in massive phalanxes, Mould groans, screams, bellows his fury and frustration. He’s like a wounded animal in the ending vamp, shouting incoherently over lunatic soloing, before the riff triumphantly returns to close out the track. Everybody should have been rocking out to this song in 1990 — what a pity they weren’t quite ready.