Album Assignments – The Nightfly

The physical media of Donald Fagen’s The Nightfly has long since passed out of my life. I first taped it from vinyl back in the mid-Eighties, complete with a scratch on the title track that jumped over about 3 seconds’ worth of music. (Another reason I’ve never been on board the vinyl nostalgia train.) Some time later, I bought a more pristine copy, but in mp3 form only. However, all this time I’ve remembered a key fact from the liner notes, one that Wikipedia has been kind enough to reproduce for me, saving me the trouble of paraphrasing. Quoth Fagen himself:

Note: The songs on this album represent certain fantasies that might have been entertained by a young man growing up in the remote suburbs of a northeastern city during the late fifties and early sixties, i.e., one of my general height, weight and build.

In other words, this is a prime specimen of that fantastic beast, the concept album. Each song on The Nightfly represents in one way or another the teen dreams of Fagen himself, albeit written now from the distance of adulthood. Those childhood imaginings mixed romantic notions of hard-boiled heartbreak with giddily optimistic visions of the future, both for the world and for himself.

Album cover for The Nightfly

Nowhere is that optimism more obvious than in “I.G.Y.”. The International Geophysical Year was a project undertaken by 67 nations from July 1957 through December 1958. Satellites were launched, undersea ridges were mapped, the Van Allen belt was explored, Antarctic research bases were built, and more. In young Fagen’s eyes, all this scientific advancement and international cooperation meant that “a beautiful world” was just around the corner — by 1976 we’d have cities powered by the sun, leisure time for artists everywhere, eternal youth and freedom.

But of course, this album came out in 1982, and despite its wide-eyed lyrics, Fagen’s voice can’t help but lend a sardonic edge to every song. Thus, unlike Howard Jones’ version of this leadoff track, Fagen’s original maintains some ironic distance from its narrator, whose glorious ideals had already been disproven.

Nevertheless, youthful hope pervades many of the songs on this album. “Walk Between The Raindrops” envisions our hero in an idealized relationship, in an idyllic Miami setting. The title image evokes an untouchability, divine providence to see the lovers unscathed through every adversity. Similarly, “Maxine” paints the future of a high-school romance as a whirlwind of exotic travel, sophisticated living, and morning lovemaking. The album’s sole cover, a version of Dion’s “Ruby Baby”, fits into this sunny daydream world too — within its story of unrequited love is the firm belief that “I’m gonna steal you away from all those guys.”

“New Frontier” sits apart from these other songs. Like “Maxine”, it’s spoken by the high-school boy, but unlike “Maxine”, its visions of the future are in service of making things happen in the present. Young Fagen (or in any case a narrator who might as well be young Fagen) is throwing a “wingding”, presumably in his parents’ absence, inviting friends to explore “a dugout that my dad built / In case the Reds decide to push the button down” — in other words, a fallout shelter. That shelter is fortified with “lots of beer”, which the boy hopes will help him score with a blonde girl who’s “got a touch of Tuesday Weld.”

For this girl, he spins a fantasy which manages to combine an “I.G.Y.”-ish enthusiasm for a perfect future, a “Maxine”-ish idea of his dazzling path into manhood, and an entirely improbable excitement about a post-nuclear world in which “we’ll open up the doors and climb into the dawn.” All of it, though, is to get this girl alone in the shelter. He asks if she’s single, chats her up about jazz, and urges her to “pretend that it’s the real thing” so that they can “stay together all night long.” Forget about the streamlined world, this “New Frontier” is much more personal and sexual than global and scientific.

There’s another side to this album, though, albeit no less sentimental in its way. “Green Flower Street” is our first hint. In this tune, the narrator is a pulp hero, who woos an Asian woman (“my mandarin plum”) in a dangerous milieu, where “it’s murder out in the street” and “there’s trouble most every night.” Despite her brother’s rage at the interracial affair, the hero’s “joy is complete” when he’s with his lover.

The equally pulpy hero of “The Goodbye Look” doesn’t fare quite as well. The title is a bit anachronistic for the “late fifties and early sixties” concept — the line “I read the book” directs us pretty clearly to a literary predecessor, which I thought for sure would have been a Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett yarn, but instead turns out to be from a 1969 novel by Ross MacDonald, the spiritual successor to those innovators of the hard-boiled detective story.

The song’s plot has nothing to do with MacDonald’s book, though — it’s more akin to Graham Greene’s “The Comedians”, if anything — a westerner caught in the machinations of a corrupt Caribbean island government. His tone, though, nails those hard-boiled hallmarks of understatement (“a small reception just for me” is redolent with menace) and regret (in the dream of an old lover, and the title kiss-off image.) That tough-tender combination, reminiscent of Elvis Costello’s “Watching The Detectives”, is the teenage boy’s masculine ideal, fed by a hundred Chandlers, Hammetts, and MacDonalds too.

That leaves us with the title track, whose title character finds the apogee of the heartbroken hero. Lester the Nightfly brims with sarcasm, a tone Fagen can play to a T. From his citadel at the foot of Mt. Belzoni, he beams “jazz and conversation” into the world, sucking down “java and Chesterfield Kings”, and berating his callers for their wacky views or their inattention to preventing echo by leaving their radio playing during a call. He shills for “that little blue jar / Patton’s Kiss And Tell”, and revels in sweet music. And yet, he says, “I feel like crying,” and wishes for a heart of ice. The bridge brings us the rest of the story, a long-ago love who he still pines for to this day.

In the context of “Green Flower Street” and “The Goodbye Look”, it’s easy to see how this image might have appealed to young Fagen. He’s kind of a spiritual cousin to the title character in Steely Dan’s “Deacon Blues”, who manages to make car crashes and alcohol poisoning sound like the perfect expression of artistic freedom. The dissolute loser, who gambled at life and lost, is a romantic archetype all its own, and a young man who feels unlucky in love can at least dream of nursing heartbreak while devoting himself to music.

With the exception of the album’s nod to Dion, that music is jazz. Brubeck gets name-checked specifically, but the sound of the whole album wouldn’t feel entirely out of place on WJAZ. True, he covers Dion (or The Drifters, I suppose), but on The Nightfly Donald Fagen shows us who he was, and why he’d go on to bring jazz and rock together so memorably.

Album Assignments – The Airborne Toxic Event

Way back near the beginning of this Album Assignments thing, I heard The Airborne Toxic Event for the first time. They were featured on a Paul McCartney tribute album, covering one of Sir Paul’s lower lights, “No More Lonely Nights.”

That this was my first exposure to the band probably fulfills some stereotype about parents in their 40s. If the shoe fits, I suppose. In any case, I was quite impressed with the cover — it took a pretty hokey McCartney song and infused it with a tenderness, a loveliness even. Combined with a strong recommendation from a friend whose wife happened to be schoolmates with the lead singer (Mikel Jollett), and another fine tribute album cover (of Dylan’s “Boots Of Spanish Leather”), I put them on my “dig deeper” list, and now here we are.

What becomes clear after listening to TATE’s 2008 debut album is that their softhearted covers aren’t much of an advertisement for their original music, which is fierce and angsty. The album kicks off with a terrific track called “Wishing Well”, which starts as a slow burn and drops into rock propulsion about 75 seconds in, at the lyric “you wanna run away”, throwing in a well-placed f-bomb just to let you know it means business. The song tells a story of somebody tossed by the winds of fate, tumbling off an emotional cliffside, screaming and crying but somehow hoping for the best.

Album cover for The Airborne Toxic Event

Wikipedia informs me that Jollett started writing songs when a confluence of horrible events hit — a breakup, mother diagnosed with cancer, and Jollett himself diagnosed with an an autoimmune disease. That certainly fits with the mood of “Wishing Well”, which has the mood of someone pushed to the extreme by events beyond his control.

Still, it seems like the breakup is the overriding source of anguish, or perhaps it’s just the one that’s easiest to write songs about. Almost every song on The Airborne Toxic Event has some connection with a broken relationship, from the trauma flashbacks of “Something New” to the epic mourning of “Innocence” to the self-explanatory devastation of “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?”

Each of these songs does a marvelous job at conveying the shattered feelings that lie in the wake of love’s dissolution, and if they didn’t speak to me quite as much as they would have 25 years ago, chalk that up to being a parent in my 40s.

Youthful romantic crisis is the name of the game throughout most of this album, but one standout exception is “Gasoline.” The beat is no less fervent and the riff no less urgent than in any of the other songs, but this time the narrator is older, and the subject is nostalgia. This time he’s in a relationship, but reminiscing about the passion of his young love:

And she’ll step away
For a second or two
And I close my eyes
And I think of you

We were only seventeen
We were holding in our screams
Like we’d torn it from the pages
Of some lipstick magazine
And you scratch and turn
And say, “Let’s burn ourselves up ’til we scream”
Like gasoline

Jollett does an amazing job on this vocal, pitching his tone with near-hysteria on the memory choruses but tossing off the last line almost like an afterthought, caught immediately by staccato guitar and Noah Harmon’s bass. The whole thing is a fantastic gestalt — I think it’s my favorite song on the album. But that’s just because it’s an awesome song. Definitely nothing to do with being a parent in my 40s.

Album Assignments: Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

I’m a Fleetwood Mac fan, so it’s been said. But while that’s accurate, it isn’t 100% true. What I really am is a Stevie Nicks fan. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the Stevie-less versions of Fleetwood Mac, but they don’t inspire the passion and allegiance that I have for the band when she’s in it. Obviously, there was about 8 years of Fleetwood Mac before they’d even heard of Buckingham or Nicks, the group having gone through a half-dozen or so lineup changes as various members drifted into drug-induced withdrawal, religion-induced disappearance, alcoholism, sleeping with the drummer’s wife, and so forth.

That band, in its various lineups, put out plenty of great music, but I think it’s generally agreed (except perhaps by strident blues purists) that the peak lineup of Fleetwood Mac was the one that coalesced in 1975: Lindsey Buckingham, Mick Fleetwood, Christine McVie, John McVie, Stevie Nicks. Not that they haven’t had plenty of contortions since then. There was the no-Lindsey version. There was the no-Lindsey and no-Stevie version. Then after a brief Clinton-induced classic lineup reunion, there was about 17 years of the no-Christine version. That version did a lot of touring, but not a lot of recording. Aside from the 2003 album Say You Will (which, at 18 songs, is like a double album at least), the only other studio work from that incarnation was the 2013 EP Extended Play, which called itself a Fleetwood Mac album but in my opinion should have been billed more like “Lindsey Buckingham and Friends”. Buckingham wrote 3 of the EP’s 4 songs, and that fourth one was a re-recording of a 1973 Buckingham Nicks demo — more like half a Stevie song, since although she wrote it, she shared lead vocals with Lindsey.

Then, in 2014, Christine shockingly rejoined the band, and toured extensively with them, multiple legs of an “On With The Show” tour. It seemed like the classic Mac was finally back, but… Stevie had put her solo career on hold for ages for that tour, and was itching to promote her own work. So while four-fifths of Fleetwood Mac was eager to record fresh material, Stevie was not up for it.

Album cover of Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie

The result is Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie. Given all of the band’s lineup changes, this group has just as much right to call itself Fleetwood Mac as the Say You Will incarnation. The fact that they didn’t is quite telling of how important Stevie Nicks has become to the Fleetwood Mac brand. Instead, although Mick and John play on every track of this collection, it’s billed as a duet album, rather like a bookend to the phenomenal 1973 pre-Mac Buckingham Nicks record.

Knowing this up front, I was quite excited for this album. Stevie is on a level by herself for me, but I absolutely love Christine, and some of her past vocal collaborations with Lindsey (“World Turning”, “Don’t Stop”) have been stellar. I appreciate Lindsey as a fine songwriter, an exceptional guitarist, and a gifted producer. Mind you, I also know him to be egomaniacal, controlling, and (if multiple biographical accounts as well as his own oblique admissions are to be believed) occasionally abusive. That tempers my appreciation of his work, but all the same I loved Buckingham Nicks, and I liked Say You Will quite a bit, so a melding of the two with Christine in Stevie’s place is sure to be a winner with me, right?

Well, sort of. It’s an enjoyable album, there’s no doubt about it. There’s said to be some effect from being in a group, that the members challenge each other and pull each other out of comfort zones to everyone’s benefit. You’ve got your Lennon/McCartney, your Jagger/Richards, and your Buckingham/McVie/Nicks. Some of the benefit of that triad lingers even with Stevie removed — compared to their most recent solo work, Christine sounds more energized and exciting here, and Lindsey sounds more grounded, spending more energy on putting his songs over than on wowing us with his virtuosic picking skills.

But while the album is called Lindsey Buckingham Christine McVie, that billing is accurate but not quite true. The overall impression, for me, is of Lindsey overwhelming the album and stifling any sense of group dynamic. Certainly on his five songs, I don’t hear Christine at all. They could pass for solo album tracks, and for all I know that’s what they are, just repurposed for this project. It wouldn’t be the first time — in fact most studio Fleetwood Mac albums since 1987 have that pedigree, at least the ones produced by Lindsey.

Christine’s songs, on the other hand, have Lindsey all over them. In fact, several of them sound like they’re going to be Lindsey songs until her voice kicks in. What’s more, a few actually recapitulate old material of Lindsey’s. “Red Sun” begins with a drumbeat identical to that from Say You Will‘s “What’s The World Coming To?”. The “Too Far Gone” riff is a slightly scrambled and sped-up version of the one from “Wrong”, a Lindsey solo track from 1992. And “Carnival Begin” starts out sounding like it’s going to echo “I’m So Afraid” from the 1975 self-titled Fleetwood Mac album, and when the solo starts it veers back in that direction again.

What they all have in common is that they are guitar songs. The sound of Christine’s piano and keyboards is a fundamental part of the magic from the first four “classic lineup” Fleetwood Mac albums — Fleetwood Mac, Rumours, Tusk, and Mirage — but it’s very hard to find here. That’s what makes “Game Of Pretend” such a breath of fresh air. It’s the only song with a prominent piano sound, and it’s beautiful. Even in this song, Lindsey eventually shows up with a choir of himself — multitracked processed layers of his own vocals accompanying Christine on the chorus — but nevertheless it’s the one song on the album that feels like it really belongs to Christine, and probably as a result, it’s my favorite.

There’s a song on this album called “On With The Show”, and probably intentionally, its guitar part calls back quite clearly to a song called “You And I, Part II” from the 1987 Fleetwood Mac album Tango In The Night. Looking back, I can see how that album marked a turning point for Fleetwood Mac aurally. Buckingham had produced the previous albums, but his production tended to bring out and enhance the other players. Tango is different — it ensconces the others in a full-on Lindsey show, fantastic ear candy but much more about the production than the singers, the songs, or the playing (except of course for the guitar playing.) The subsequent Buckingham-produced Mac studio albums have followed suit.

For the longest time, I ascribed Tango‘s sound to the 80s, and explained away the subsequent albums as due to the absence of Christine. But with this album I can see the stranglehold that Lindsey Buckingham has on the sound of this band for the past three decades. The only one who’s been able to successfully escape it is Stevie Nicks, and only then by completely removing herself from the band and recording with other producers like John Shanks, Sheryl Crow, and Dave Stewart.

“On With The Show” sounds like it intends to be a statement of solidarity from Lindsey. “As long as I stand / I will take your hand / I will stand with my band”, he says. But after listening to this album on repeat, I couldn’t stop wishing that he spent more time standing with the band and less time standing on them.

Album Assignments: Fear Of A Black Planet

It’s pretty obvious by now, from the list of albums we’ve picked so far, that Robby and I are basically rock and roll guys. Nevertheless, we can enjoy good music in other genres, and in my estimation Fear Of A Black Planet has some damn good music on it. That said, I don’t know the terrain as well as when I’m writing about rock, so apologies in advance if I screw up in describing something.

Even a hip-hop civilian like me knows “Fight The Power,” thanks to its inclusion and repetition in Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing. For my money, this is still PE’s best song (though “Welcome To The Terrordome” is a close second). It’s the pinnacle of Public Enemy alchemy, all the elements that make for a great PE song: samples layered into a slammin’ beat by the Bomb Squad and Terminator X, Chuck D’s fierce, thundering vocals, and occasional jump-ins by Flavor Flav for, well, flavor.

Most importantly, its lyrics are both inspired and inspiring. Or, as the song itself puts it: “As the rhythm’s designed to bounce / What counts is that the rhyme’s / Designed to fill your mind.” There could hardly be a better manifesto for Public Enemy’s music overall, and Fear Of A Black Planet in particular.

Album cover for Fear Of A Black Planet

Frustratingly, though, “Fight The Power” is censored for some reason on this album. Even worse, the interference happens at the climactic third verse, the high point of the song:

Elvis was a hero to most
But he never meant shit to me
Ya see, straight out racist the sucker was
Simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready and hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp
Sample a look back you look and find
Nothing but rednecks for 400 years if you check

The version of “Fight The Power” that appears on Fear Of A Black Planet drops the audio on “shit” and straight-out bleeps the last part of “motherfuck.” This is especially weird because both of those words appear multiple times throughout the rest of the album, unscathed. Cursory research on my part didn’t turn up any definitive information on why this is, just some speculation that one of the artists sampled on the song maybe didn’t want to be associated with cursing?

In any case, these changes kind of vandalize the song and blunt its attack, especially combined with a few other odd alterations like Terminator X looping Chuck D’s part a few times on “Elvis was a hero to most,” and the removal of Wynton Marsalis’ awesome horn part. It’s still great, and I still love hearing it, but for the definitive version you absolutely have to turn to the Do The Right Thing soundtrack.

There are three basic types of songs on Fear Of A Black Planet. The first, and most dominant, is the “Fight The Power” mold — Chuck D in front, Flav in back. Then there are the instrumentals, though that’s kind of a weird term for this sort of hip-hop. There are some instruments played, and a drum machine frequently in the mix, but for the most part the “instrumentation” is samples — of beats, sounds, spoken words, other vocals, even previous PE songs. This record was released in that brief window where sampling technology had matured but the laws hadn’t caught up, so The Bomb Squad was able to layer dozens of sounds in a single song without worrying about credit, copyright, payment, and so forth. Making an album like this today would be financially and legally prohibitive.

Finally, there are a couple of songs with Flavor Flav in front, and Chuck completely absent. Now, for me a little Flav goes a long way, and I much prefer the dominant mode, but I have to say he comes into his own on this album. “Can’t Do Nuttin’ For Ya Man” is genuinely funny — I laugh every time I hear “Flavor Flav got problems of his owwwwwn!” and “You want six dollars for WHAT?!?” But much better than that is “911 Is A Joke”, a bona-fide strong political statement, where for once Flav’s clowning has a bite all its own rather than just leavening the intensity of Chuck D. By lambasting the slow response times of ambulances in poor black neighborhoods, Flav highlights a type of institutional racism that would otherwise be invisible to the white world.

As for the instrumentals, my favorite is “Incident at 66.6 FM.” The unique nature of these kinds of instrumentals means that they can actually be about something rather than just purely musical. In this case, the samples frame the scene of a radio call-in show, a real show hosted on WNBC in 1987 by Alan Colmes, in which various callers chime in about PE, from articulate defenses to baldfaced racism. Hearing the clips swirled together gives a sense of the chaos of that kind of show, and of the overwhelming context of racial bias against which PE was fighting.

Wait, I take it back — there’s a fourth type of song on Fear Of A Black Planet: “Pollywannacracka”. This tune is spoken (drawled, really) rather than rapped, with no sign of Flav. For that matter, it might not be Chuck D speaking, but if it’s somebody else, that person isn’t credited. Anyway, “Polly” is one of a few songs that take on interracial relationships. The first verse is about a black woman who “wants a lover right now / but not no brother”, while the second verse reverses the first, taking on a “brother who only wants blue eyes and blonde hair.” In both cases, their community’s anger at this perceived desertion is reflected in the chorus, and in the acted interludes that follow it, in which the abandoned one lashes out at the other. Then in the third verse, the narrator himself argues for the validity of interracial relationships, causing that same community to turn on him with the same anger, singing once again, “Pollywannacracka.”

“Fear Of A Black Planet” (the title track) takes a different tack, with Chuck D mocking white fear of racial mixing. While he rejects a different kind of white woman in each verse (“your daughter, nope she’s not my type”, “I don’t need your sista”, “I don’t want your wife”), he also challenges the notion that those relationships would be harmful. “Are you afraid of the mix of Black and White?” he asks, and later, “What is pure? Who is pure? Is it European? I ain’t sure,” and, “What’s wrong with some color in your family tree?” Interspersed through the song is a telling sample from Dick Gregory, who points out that the American “one drop” definition of blackness, dating back to slavery days, is also what feeds that white supremacist fear of racial dilution: “Black man, black woman: black baby. White man, white woman: white baby. White man, black woman: black baby. Black man, white woman: black baby.”

These songs seemed like opposing viewpoints at first, but the more I thought about it, I began to see them as reflections of each other. In “Polly”, the black community wants solidarity, and shuns its members who date outside their own race. Then in “Fear”, Chuck as the representative of that community affirms his own commitment to that solidarity. But just as the narrator in “Polly” argues that “there should not be any hatred / for a brother or sister / whose opposite race they’ve mated”, so too does Chuck make the case that while white racists may be afraid of racial mixing, there’s no reason why black people should be.

While much of this album is great, there are some low points too. I found “Meet The G That Killed Me” the most disappointing, as not only is it outright homophobic (and samples the homophobic Frances Cress Welsing), it also builds on her speculation that AIDS is “chemical and biological warfare” against the black community by tracing a line of disease from gay people right to our hero Flavor, who speaks the title line to indict the “gay germ”. There are also some lines in “Terrordome” that, while maybe not outright anti-Semitic, come way too close to defending Professor Griff’s then-recent statement that Jews cause “the majority of the wickedness” in the world.

On the flip side, Public Enemy upends the misogyny that’s endemic to so much hip-hop in “Revolutionary Generation,” a full-throated defense of black women, placing their oppression within a historical context of general black oppression, and committing to stand alongside them, joining forces in the revolution. They call back explicitly to Aretha Franklin’s “Respect” twice in the song, first with “R-E-S-P-E-C-T, my sister’s not my enemy,” and then with “She needs a little respect / I would say she needs a lotta.”

This is an epic album — over an hour long — and so packed with musical and lyrical content that I could go on for ages about it, but I have a sense that might become tedious if it hasn’t already. So I’ll just end by saying that for me, Fear Of A Black Planet is not only the best Public Enemy record by a mile, it’s one of the best albums of the 1990s, and an essential work of art overall for the late 20th century.

Album Assignments: Wish You Were Here

I lowered the needle to the record slowly, reverently. In the basement of my childhood house, where speakers sat high up on the walls to paint the room with sound, I still strained to hear. I nudged up the volume as the music began quietly, so quietly. Shooting stars streaked past, light years away, and then a slow hum grew and grew. A stately melody emerged, apparently played on wine glasses, though for all the world it sounds like a synth to me. And thus I set sail for the first time on the musical odyssey that is “Shine On You Crazy Diamond.” It wasn’t at all what I was expecting…

I got into Pink Floyd thanks to a girl named Vicki, who I knew from theater. Vicki played the piano beautifully, and during breaks in rehearsals and such, she would sometimes wander over to the grand piano and start playing and singing. One day she played “Nobody Home” from The Wall, and I was captivated. I asked her whose song it was, and was astonished when she said Pink Floyd. All I knew about Pink Floyd was that the name showed up hand-penned on jean jackets, locker walls, and notebooks, alongside Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Kiss, and other such scary bands. (Keep in mind I was 15.) How could something so beautiful and sad belong to one of those groups?

Vicki loaned me her copy of The Wall, and I borrowed Dark Side Of The Moon from the public library. I immediately loved them both, and my cassette copies went into heavy rotation wherever I could take them. Then one more Floyd factor entered the picture. Back in the day (the 80’s, that is), planetarium laser shows were a thing. Night-time on a weekend, you’d head to the planetarium attached to our Museum of Natural History, settle into a comfy leaned-back seat, and then darkness would descend, followed by amazing-sounding music. The laser patterns drawn onto the dome were lots of fun, but for me the main attraction was hearing music over such an excellent sound system.

Wish You Were Here album cover

The granddaddy of all the laser shows was, of course, Laser Floyd, and the first time I saw it, they opened the show with a Pink Floyd song I didn’t know, called “Welcome To The Machine.” It goes without saying that this is the perfect song to open such a show, and as with the others, I loved it instantly. As soon as I could, I sought out its album, which turned out to be Wish You Were Here. And that’s how I found myself in the basement, both enraptured and confused by what I was hearing.

The Pink Floyd I’d known up to that time was freaky and psychedelic, sure, but it was very song-oriented. The Wall‘s longest song is 6:23, and that’s “Comfortably Numb”, which is epic and powerful but still very much a verse-chorus-verse affair. Dark Side‘s longest tracks are “Time”, “Money”, and “Us And Them”, all radio staples because they’re such solid songs despite their length. So what I was not expecting from my new Pink Floyd album was a thirteen-and-a-half minute opening track that’s 80% instrumental.

“Shine On You Crazy Diamond” takes a completely different tack musically from the other Floyd stuff I’d heard, and for that matter from most other rock music. It’s an instrumental suite, divided up into distinct parts — both split across the two sides of the record, and highlighted internally by the subtitles “(Parts I-V)” and “(Parts VI-IX)”. Altogether, it’s 31 minutes long, out of the record’s total 44 minute length. There are parts with words, in both sections, but I’d venture to say they probably take up maybe, maybe 4 minutes total.

I’m not great with pure instrumental music. I’m a language guy, and music without lyrics I find tough to focus on and even harder to write about. Now, I’ve listened to “Shine On” often enough that I can more or less sing along with the whole thing, lyrics or no, but when I think about the song without hearing it, what I’m thinking about are the lyrics. And it turns out, there’s a story behind those lyrics.

“Shine On”, and in fact pretty much the whole of Wish You Were Here, was written for Syd Barrett, an original member of Pink Floyd and one of those sad cases of 1960s psychedelic burnout, like Peter Green and Brian Wilson. The song sets a wistful tone for the album, longing for the return of a visionary victim who was “caught in the crossfire of childhood and stardom.”

The long “Shine On” suites bookend three other songs on the album, each of which has its piece of the story to tell. “Welcome To The Machine” is about that transfer out of childhood into the “machine” of adulthood under capitalism. It characterizes pre-adulthood as a time of both preparation and distraction. “We told you what to dream,” it says, and it turns out that dream is of what Pink Floyd became — rock stars at the height of consumption, wealth, and power. For the rest of us, that dream is what keeps us placated enough to fulfill our roles in the machine.

As we grind through the days, we like to imagine that those rock stars have escaped, but “Have A Cigar” is here to tell us that their world is just as phony and venal as ours. The narrator is a promoter, or maybe a record executive, who makes it clear that the aim of the music business isn’t to create art, move people, or change the world, but just to “ride the gravy train.” This guy is the essence of “the machine”, so disconnected from the humans he’s dealing with that he cluelessly asks, “Oh by the way, which one’s Pink?”

Both of these themes get taken up later in The Wall, with the institutionalization of school serving as the machine in “Another Brick In The Wall, Part 2”, and the relentless star machinery of “Have A Cigar” pushing Pink into totalitarian fantasy from “Comfortably Numb” into “The Show Must Go On” and “In The Flesh.” In short, the world is no place for a sensitive boy, even one who manages to live the rock star dream.

I used to think it was Roger Waters who was that boy, and I still think that’s true to an extent, but understanding Wish You Were Here shows me that even more than Waters, the one truly stuck behind that wall was Barrett. Alan Parker’s movie references this when Pink shaves his head, then his eyebrows and every hair on his body. That’s just what Syd Barrett looked like the last time any member of Pink Floyd saw him. He had in fact wandered into the studio where the band was recording “Shine On You Crazy Diamond,” so spookily removed from his old self that it was 45 minutes before anyone recognized him.

For me, the most moving song on the album, the one that sums it all up, is the title track. It’s all about the confusion of adulthood, the ambiguity between heaven and hell, smiles and veils, as shown in “Welcome” and “Cigar.” In the questions it asks, there are no easy answers:

Did they get you to trade
Your heroes for ghosts?
Hot ashes for trees?
Hot air for a cool breeze?
Cold comfort for change?

“Did they get you to” makes it sound like the subject was conned, but some of these sound like pretty good trades, don’t they? Wouldn’t you trade hot ashes for trees? Hot air for a cool breeze? Waters offsets industrial and pastoral images, winding up for the final punch: “Did you exchange / A walk-on part in the war / For a lead role in a cage?”

That’s a menu with no good choices, which is exactly the point. Those words spoke to me when I first heard the album in my parents’ basement, and they still speak to me now. And now, as then, I still don’t know which is the better choice. The difference for me now is that the choice is made.

Album Assignments: Transatlanticism

Tragedy plus distance equals comedy, says the old formula. But in Transatlanticism, Death Cab For Cutie offers a different math: love plus distance equals tragedy. In song after song, this album looks at many kinds of distance from love, from physical to temporal to emotional and more, and the damage it does to people. That these words about distance live inside music that feels incredibly immediate and intimate makes them even more powerful.

The title track is a perfect example. Gentle piano chords float over a soft but churning rhythm track, sounding like faraway machinery. Ben Gibbard’s voice comes in, draped in reverb and echo, so close to us we can hear his every breath. “The Atlantic was born today, and I’ll tell you how…” The music builds in power, electric guitar mixed equal with the vocal, and equally reverberating, with a synth drone behind it all, slowly growing louder.

The lyrics tell a metaphorical story of an ocean suddenly appearing between the singer and his lover. We can’t tell whether he’s talking about physical distance in a stylized way, or emotional distance in a metaphorical way, but we know it’s painful. “I found it less like a lake, and more like a moat / The rhythm of my footsteps crossing flatlands to your door have been silenced forevermore / The distance is quite simply much too far for me to row / It seems farther than ever before.” Then the drums come in, and a ritual chant: “I need you so much closer.” Over and over again. “So come on, come on…” Over and over in grand, layered chorus. This tour de force lasts for eight minutes of increasing intensity, simultaneously wrenching and elevating.

Transatlanticism album cover

Then there’s the breathtaking “We Looked Like Giants.” Surrounded by a turbulent, crashing riff, Gibbard reminisces about a mutual coming of age, where “I’d brave those mountain passes / And you’d skip your early classes / And we’d learn how our bodies worked.” The memory is achingly sweet, a time of closeness that’s never been matched in his life since. And now he feels completely alienated from it: “God damn the black night, with all its foul temptations / I’ve become what I always hated, when I was with you then.” That distance, combined with the vividness of the memory, underscores the narrator’s tragedy.

In “Death Of An Interior Decorator”, the character has aged away from her authentic self, and the love she once had has abandoned her. In “The New Year”, Gibbard offers sharp observations about our strange New Year’s Eve rituals, but completes them with a thwarted yearning for closeness, wishing for a world where “there’d be no distance that could hold us back.” In “The Sound Of Settling” the narrator finds himself in a relationship and a life far away from the one he’d imagined. In the brilliant “Title And Registration” he watches the gap open between himself and his love, who drives away while he can do nothing but look at the old pictures of them together.

“Expo ’86” isn’t so much about distance as repetition — Gibbard uses the metaphor of a Ferris wheel to talk about his cyclical pattern of entering relationships even as he anticipates their end. The structure of the whole record echoes this circular metaphor, as the low buzzing that ends “A Lack Of Color” is the same sound that begins “The New Year”. And he makes the point in “The New Year”: “I don’t feel any different.” For as hard as he tries, for as far as he travels, nothing changes.

The song that steps furthest outside this frame of painful distance is “Passenger Seat”. I think it’s the most beautiful song on the album. Not only does it paint a gorgeous portrait of intimacy and affection, it does so in music that feels both hushed and overwhelming, like being inside the transcendent quiet that can descend between two people who need no words. The picture of these two driving together, talking about the stars, and the incredible feeling of safety between them — “With my feet on the dash / The world doesn’t matter” — completely earns the heartfelt declarations of everlasting devotion that end the song. It’s a portrait of true love so convincing that there can be no questioning the pain of distance from it.

The Annotated Annotated Watchmen 21 – The Last To Know Who’s Fooling Who

NOTE: As usual for this series, Watchmen spoilers abound below.

Moore and Gibbons’ cathedral has many symmetries and echoes. Here’s an important one for our purposes today: every chapter ends with an epigraph, and every chapter’s title is a piece taken out of its epigraph. Thus, each chapter hands readers a fragment at its beginning, then gives its full context at the end, inviting them to consider how that fragment in its context reflects upon what has come between. It’s an invitation well worth accepting, as each title and epigraph resonates richly on a variety of levels.

I certainly found that to be true of the Chapter 1 epigraph, from Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row.” Chapter 2’s epigraph comes from another song lyric, albeit one from just about twenty years later and across the Atlantic. The chapter is called “Absent Friends”, and the quote is from Elvis Costello’s 1984 song “The Comedians”:

And I’m up while the dawn is breaking, even though my heart is aching.
I should be drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians.

Pretty Words

At a glance, it would appear that the first part of this quote is actually a mismatch for the chapter. Dawn is never breaking here, either literally or metaphorically. Noir that it is, Watchmen is set mostly at night. Every Comedian flashback in this chapter takes place in a night-time scene1, as does Rorschach’s interrogation of Moloch. Although the funeral occurs during the day, it too is shrouded in rainy darkness. Only the panels with Laurie and her mother are in sunlight, and between John Higgins’ pastel palette and the scene’s contrast to the rest of the book, those panels seem absolutely sun-drenched, far from the early light of breaking dawn. And even in that sunny scene, dark emotions rule — Laurie and her mother spend most of it squabbling.

But what’s important about that first clause is the narrator’s position in it. He’s up while the dawn is breaking, which could mean one of two things — either he’s woken up before sunrise, or he’s been up all through the night. The former reading suggests ambition, a quality shared by several Watchmen characters. Ambition defines the members of the Minutemen, though their goals weren’t all the same. By the time of the Crimebusters meeting and the second generation of masked heroes, those differences of intent have gotten magnified enough that any kind of group unity is impossible — individual ambitions are pointed in radically different directions, none more so than Ozymandias, as that meeting sets in motion the main plot of the book. The Vietnam and protest scenes show the results of that fragmentation.

By the time of the final flashback, Rorschach is pretty much the only one with any ambition left, at least as far as we can tell at this point. The other heroes have retired, Moloch just wants to be left alone, and the Comedian is dead. Even though he’s the subject of the chapter, I don’t think the Comedian himself is up for consideration as the “I” in the quote, since the last part of the quote specifically mentions (and thereby excludes) him. Also, despite his presence in the flashbacks, he’s still dead — not exactly an early riser.

What about the other kind of “up while the dawn is breaking”, the kind where you’ve been up all night? That could suggest ambition in itself, or anxiety, or intensity, or just insomnia, but even more so it implies a separation from society — when the rest of the world sleeps, the narrator is awake long enough to see the dawn. Well, there’s certainly plenty of social deviance to go around in the Watchmen cast. By definition, the costumed adventurers are set apart from the rest of society, and Chapter 2 tells the story of how society gradually came to reject them. Even Doctor Manhattan, embraced by the government for his capabilities, is much more distant from humanity than any daysleeper.

I wouldn’t argue for a “correct” meaning between these two — the beauty of poetry is that both can be present at once, their implications and overtones harmonizing with each other. You could make the case that the “even though” pivot after the first clause suggests the ambitious reading, as the character would seem to be overcoming heartache in order to get himself moving, but I’d say that this pivot fits every reading. No matter the reason, all of these characters are pushing forward through emotional pain.

Quote panel from chapter 2

There may be no real dawn breaking, but heartache abounds. Both of the Juspeczyk women are suffering from isolation, even isolated from each other. In the flashback, Sally learns how little she’s valued among her teammates, while even the imposing Hooded Justice lives in fear of being outed. Captain Metropolis’s fear is evident in his display of “social evils”, and Ozymandias in that meeting feels “helpless against forces greater than any [he’d] anticipated,” as he explains much later. Nite Owl II still longs for the days when he could imagine himself “part of a fellowship of legendary beings.” Rorschach, as much as he tries to suppress any emotion, is lonely, and disgusted by the world around him. And Moloch, well, Moloch is not only isolated, frightened, helpless, and lonely, he’s also dying, and that laetrile is not going to help.

Ambition, social deviation, and emotional pain — the first line of the quote certainly fits what we’ve seen in the chapter. How about the second line? “I should be drinking a toast to absent friends, instead of these comedians.” The clearest denotation is of respect misplaced — the toast raised to the wrong subject. It’s easy to see the parallel here — Edward Morgan Blake is buried with full military honors, carried by top-hatted pallbearers, and attended by a pantheon of the most powerful people in the world. Yet as we come to know him through the flashbacks, he is a poison seed who makes every situation he’s in much worse for his presence. He takes advantage of the Minutemen’s innocence and cordiality to sexually assault a teammate. He destroys any chance that the second generation of costumed heroes could work together, though arguably there wasn’t much chance of it anyway. He insults and belittles Ozymandias in a way that tips him over the edge into planning mass slaughter. He guns down a woman pregnant with his child, launches tear gas into a crowd of protesters, confuses the hell out of Moloch (without revealing the rather crucial information that Ozymandias is the source of Moloch’s cancer), and unwittingly sets his own death into motion by giving his “last performance” to a room bugged by Adrian Veidt.

“These comedians” — the reference is plural in the song, but it’s plainly meant to refer here to the singular Comedian — don’t deserve our time and respect, but who does? Absent friends. This is the crux of the quote, which is why Moore chose it for the chapter title. The central themes of this epigraph are loss and isolation, and Chapter 2 of Watchmen shows us the reasons for the characters’ isolation from each other, and what they’ve lost along the way.

History Repeats the Old Conceits

If Chapter 1 introduces the characters to us, Chapter 2 introduces their history, and their world. Moore’s ingenious structure ensures that no chapter (for that matter, almost no panel) is doing just one thing, so only the most obvious function of chapter 2 is to deepen our understanding of The Comedian. As I reviewed in the previous post, the chapter does this by showing the character to us through the eyes of his community.

However, by moving forward in time, those flashbacks also tell the story of that community and its world. That story starts when masked heroes were a fad, and there was some sense of camaraderie between the Minutemen. These heroes were friends, or at least some of them believed they were, enough for Nite Owl to chummily invite the gang over for beers. The first break we see in those bonds comes when The Comedian attacks Silk Spectre, and is attacked in turn by Hooded Justice, who then shows no sympathy for the Spectre’s plight.

26 years later, at the time of the next flashback, the Minutemen are gone, and with them any sense of a group dynamic. Liaisons still exist, but they tend to be dyads — Nite Owl II and Rorschach, or Dr. Manhattan and his wife Janey (soon to become a dyad of Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II.) Thus the friendships of the 1940s are already absent in the 1960s, despite Captain Metropolis’s attempts to recapture them.

In the 1971 Vietnam flashback, connections have eroded still further. The government has co-opted the activities of two costumed adventurers and sent them off to join a war effort, just as The Comedian had hoped for in 1940. Thus these two adventurers are cut off from the rest of their brethren by both intention and distance. Moreover, Dr. Manhattan himself is becoming a friend to no one — as The Comedian observes, he’s drifting out of touch.

Panels from page 18, chapter 2. Panel 1 is Comedian and Nite Owl II in a two-shot. Comedian: "From themselves. Whatsamatter? Don't you feel comfortable unless you're up against some schmuck in a Halloween suit? Speakin' o' which, where the hell are Rorschach and the others?" Panel 2, over-the-mask of Nite Owl II to Comedian. Nite Owl: "Jon and Laurie are handling the riots in Washington. Rorschach's across town, trying to hold the Lower East Side. He, uh, he mostly works on his own these days."

The characters are alienated from each other, and some alienated from humanity in general. The 1977 police strike protest flashback shows us the culmination of humanity’s alienation from them. Where at first vigilantes were seen as a welcome addition to police efforts, and then as a useful tool for national interests, by 1977 they are being rejected outright by the police, with that rejection supported by an angry grassroots movement. Any sense of friendship between the masked heroes and the public they ostensibly serve is long gone, and their connections to each other have broken down further, as Nite Owl II looks on in horror at The Comedian’s actions, and mutters that Rorschach “mostly works on his own these days.”

Come 1985, Rorschach is the only vigilante left active, and thus is officially absent from Blake’s funeral, lest he be recognized and detained. Like Moloch, he can only pay his respects in secret. Laurie, on the other hand, has no wish to pay any respects at all, and Sally is apparently not invited. The dyad of Dr. Manhattan and Silk Spectre II is breaking down, and she has not yet become attached to Nite Owl II.

Thus at the time of this chapter, all the characters are isolated from each other. It’s not just that friends are absent — friendships are absent. Ironically, just has he helped to break them apart in life, The Comedian in death helps to bring them closer together, with Rorschach visiting each of them, and a subset of them gathering at the funeral. Thanks to Blake, Ozymandias is about to bring them all closer still.

This Year’s Model

“The Comedians” comes from Costello’s 1984 album Goodbye Cruel World. Overall, it’s a bit of an odd song. With a 5/4 time signature, it’s not exactly American Bandstand material, and its impressionistic, elliptical lyrics resist the interpreter’s grasp. In the liner notes to his 2004 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello writes that the song “takes its title from a Graham Greene book but other than that has no connection with his work.” So that’s one thing it has in common with Moore’s Comedian.

He also claims that the lyric “has something to do with temptation without being too specific.” That’s putting it mildly — references to temptation are extremely oblique if indeed they’re present at all. For my money, a clearer single-word précis would be “disillusionment.” Falling under gentle persuasion might qualify as being tempted, but lines like “they’re finding all that glitters is not chrome”, “what kind of love is this upon inspection”, and “all these newfound fond acquaintances / turn out to be the red rag to my bull” speak much more loudly to a sense of deception and disappointment. Cast in that light, the misplaced honors of the chorus seem to result from a series of mistakes on the narrator’s part.

According to his liner notes from the previous Goodbye Cruel World reissue, in 1995, Costello was feeling plenty of disillusionment himself in 1984. For example: “Many very private and personal concerns influenced the fate of these songs and sessions… It must suffice to say that I began the year as a married man and after a fraught and futile period, I found myself living alone by the time this record was released.” Moreover: “‘Pop Music’ was among the things about which I was depressed and demoralized.”

This album represents a crossroads in Costello’s career. After Declan Patrick MacManus adopted the name “Elvis Costello”, he burst onto the scene in 1977 as more or less an instant star, racking up an unbroken run of 8 singles in the UK Top 30. After his first few years, though, Costello began to wander into the valley tread by many a pop idol, albeit each in their own way. He recorded an album of all country music covers. His band The Attractions had started to shake itself apart, with relations especially tense between himself and bass player Bruce Thomas. And he managed to alienate just about everyone with his behavior in a Columbus, Ohio Holiday Inn bar.

Cover of Goodbye Cruel World

That night in April 1979, Elvis and The Attractions were sharing the bar with Stephen Stills’ touring band. Costello claims to have been so drunk that he has no memory of the proceedings, but they are recounted more or less as follows. Costello began needling the Stills crew, with a motivation he speculates about in autobiographical hindsight: “My guess is that I had developed the rather juvenile view that the previous musical generation had squandered their inheritance and I started to believe we had been sent to sweep it all away.” (pg. 336) In any case, he antagonized them, they antagonized him, and the whole scene wound itself up to a ridiculous alcohol-fueled pitch, until Costello tried to “provoke a bar fight and finally put the lights out” by tossing off despicable racial slurs about James Brown and Ray Charles. He got the fight he wanted, as Bonnie Bramlett socked him in the mouth and the whole party collapsed “into a heap of flailing limbs that only ended when the barman came around the counter with a raised baseball bat.” (pg. 335) The whole thing would probably have just made for a silly tour story, except that Bramlett went on a radio call-in show the next morning, told her side of the story, and suddenly Elvis was national news as a horrible racist, banned from radio playlists and overwhelmed with death threats.

Costello has explained himself several times, in several different venues. He says that he was “speaking the exact opposite of [his] true beliefs”2, that it was “an absurd overstatement of opposites, a contradiction in terms” (pg. 336), and that he was “speaking in some absurd, exaggerated, supposedly ironic humour, in which everything is expressed in the reverse of that which one knows to be true.” Not to mention “drunken”, “idiotic”, and “completely irresponsible.”3 I believe him on all counts. There’s nothing else in his career or public persona to suggest racial bias, and plenty to suggest quite the opposite. What’s most important about the story today is the way it derailed him and caused the beginning of a spiral — he’s aptly compared it to Dylan’s 1966 motorcycle crash in the way it stopped the madness of the life he had been living, albeit in a very self-destructive fashion.

There are more parallels between Costello and Dylan, but we’ll get to that in a minute. I was mentioning how Goodbye Cruel World was a crossroads album for Costello, and the stories above are a bit of background for that assertion. There’s more. Another way in which Costello began to wander after his first several albums was in his choice of producer. The first five Costello albums saw Nick Lowe at the helm, but for the country covers record he went with a Nashville producer, and for the one after that he partnered with Geoff Emerick, the legendary engineer who worked on (among other things) Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s, the White Album, and Abbey Road. That album (Imperial Bedroom) was an artistic triumph, but was less successful on the charts — neither of its singles cracked the UK top 40, and they weren’t even a blip on the US charts.

Enter Clive Langer (nicknamed “Clanger”) and Alan Winstanley. This duo had seen quite a bit of UK success producing several albums by Madness, and the breakout debut Too-Rye-Ay by Dexy’s Midnight Runners. They produced Costello’s 1983 album Punch The Clock, and gave him a considerable international hit with “Everyday I Write The Book.” The song brought Costello back into the UK Top 30, and gave him his first ever entry into the US Top 40. Rock critics hailed “Everyday” as Costello’s comeback.

So when it was time to record Goodbye Cruel World — the follow-up to Punch The Clock — Langer and Winstanley were seen as the obvious choice to produce. The problem was, Costello wasn’t on board. As you may recall, he was depressed and demoralized about pop music, and morose specimen that he was at the time, he “fought every attempt to apply the Clanger/Winstanley method to these songs.”4 “So in the end,” he says, “we agreed to a truce. Clive and Alan would produce two selected songs to the height of style and I could make the rest of the record as miserable as possible.”5 Neither of those two songs (“I Wanna Be Loved” and “The Only Flame In Town”) made anywhere near the splash that “Everyday” had, and Costello ended up dissolving The Attractions (though they’ve sporadically reunited over the years), and swerving into a journey of genre experimentation that has so far included chamber music, soundtracks, a ballet score, and concept albums, as well as collaborations with such artists as Paul McCartney, Allen Touissant, Burt Bacharach, and The Roots.

That swerve was still in the future when Alan Moore was writing Watchmen. “The Comedians” was a very contemporary reference in that comic — the album couldn’t have been much more than a year old while Moore was drafting Chapter 2. The fact that he chose a Costello quote to follow a Dylan quote in the book highlights the comparison between the two artists. Costello is in some ways the UK’s answer to Bob Dylan — a musically restless maverick with a supreme gift for well-turned and provocative lyrics. They’ve both had a combative relationship with the press over the years, and with their fans as well. Critic Larry David Smith comes right out and says it: “Elvis Costello is an English Bob Dylan: an irrepressible rebel who will reject you because you praise him, who feels artistic recognition is the harbinger of creative stagnation, and who — more than likely — battles with himself. The result is one impressive body of work.” (pg. 125)

But where Dylan came out of the early 1960s folk song tradition, Costello’s vintage is rather different: the late 1970s punk tradition. Smith in fact makes much of calling Elvis a punk no matter what genre territory he traverses, declaring Costello the creator of such oddities as the punk torch song, the punk chamber music record, the punk lounge album, the punk editorial, and so forth. This may all be a little overblown, but when Smith stakes out his definition of “punk” — melodramatic, irreverent, aggressive — it’s hard not to find those qualities in the lion’s share of Costello’s output.

1977 vintage photo of Elvis Costello

Still, although he came of age in the midst of the punk movement, and was deeply influenced by it, Costello doesn’t easily slot into the punk stereotype. His thick glasses and knock knees of 1977 were a far cry from the jagged aggression of The Sex Pistols, the street tough aura of The Clash, or the horror-carnival aesthetic of The Damned. Like his contemporaries, Costello had venom to spare, but he also brought a highly literary sensibility to everything he created — layers and layers of wordplay, allusions, clever metaphors, and poetic imagery.

As so often happens in these Watchmen articles, this is all starting to sound a bit familiar, isn’t it? I made the case in a previous post that Alan Moore is the Bob Dylan of comics, but the more I’ve learned about Elvis Costello, the easier it’s become to see the Costello sides of Moore as well. For one thing, we know that Moore is a punk rock aficionado. In a 2015 interview with Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Moore declares his enthusiasm for punk rock, and goes on to boast, “I doubt that there’s many people out there with a better collection of early punk vinyl singles than I’ve got.” Later on he specifically cites his admiration for Costello, placing him alongside bands like X-Ray Spex and The Clash.

So is Moore a punk comic writer? Well of course that all depends on whose definition of “punk” we’re using. Smith’s triumvirate of aggression, irreverence, and melodrama don’t fit all that well as a description of Moore’s work, but then again I’m not sure I’m all that swayed by Smith’s definition of punk. Those three things all come into play in punk rock, but I would argue there’s a deeper linchpin beneath them: the spirit of resistance. Punk came about as a rebellion against the polished and often bloated popular music of the mid-1970s, and the general sound tended to combine a throwback to the garage rock sounds of the late ’50s and early ’60s with a snarling, pissed-off tone that was beyond anything rock had consistently manifested up until then.

The individual songs also tended to display some kind of rebellion or resistance, be it political, social, cultural, or — as is frequently the case in Costello’s oeuvre — romantic. You don’t find many punk songs celebrating something, unless it’s celebrating the spirit of destruction, a la “Anarchy in the UK.” Instead, the punk project is to take apart the status quo and replace it with something more authentic and true.6

Framed like that, our notion of punk starts to get closer to the spirit of Moore. He hit his stride in 1982 with Marvelman, which dug beneath the superhero concept to interrogate the connections between power, fear, mythology, perfection, and control. V For Vendetta, Swamp Thing, The Ballad Of Halo Jones, and lots of other stories soon followed, including some brilliant reinterpretations of characters like Superman and Batman. Each of these works, up to and including Watchmen, took an established status quo of some kind, deconstructed it, and emerged with a startlingly fresh new approach. If there’s a through-line to Moore’s work, it is his tendency to upend whatever genre, convention, character, or milieu he finds, replacing it with something more authentic and true.

So yeah, I think it can fairly be said that Alan Moore has a punk spirit, and that this spirit expressed itself in Watchmen. Like the epigraph he chose for this chapter, Moore knows something about respect misplaced, and like Costello himself, he wields linguistic virtuosity in the service of his rebellious projects. He’s never been punched for drunken racist remarks (that I know of), but then again he did start worshiping the snake-god Glycon on his fortieth birthday — everybody finds a different way to crash that motorcycle.

Black And White World

Larry David Smith has painstakingly categorized all of Costello’s songs (up through 2004) into classifications like “Relational Complaint”, “Relational Assault”, “Wordplay”, and “Narrative Impressionism”. In his rubric, the majority of songs in Costello’s first ten years fall into some relational category, and generally in the negative — complaint, assault, warning, plea, struggle, etc. As I learned when listening closely to his debut My Aim Is True, he’s angry and hurt, mostly about women.

But there’s another category that, while a minority of his output, still appears on most of his records: the societal or political complaint. It’s there from the beginning — his very first single “Less Than Zero” was was a shot at British fascist Oswald Mosley — and probably culminates in “Tramp The Dirt Down”, from the 1989 album Spike, in which he fantasizes about outliving Margaret Thatcher so that he can stomp on her grave. Costello seemed to have a particular animus toward Thatcher, so much so that academics David Pilgrim and Richard Ormrod were able to write an entire book called Elvis Costello And Thatcherism.

Cover of Elvis Costello And Thatcherism

I’d argue that Thatcherism is an important topic for looking at Watchmen, too. Moore said midway through the release of Watchmen that part of his aim with the book was to “try and scare a little bit so that people would just stop and think about their country and their politics.” Watchmen wasn’t a direct commentary on British politics the way that V For Vendetta was — in fact, the entire thing is set in America and barely mentions any other countries at all, except for Vietnam, Afghanistan, and the USSR. Some of its themes, however, relate directly to Thatcher’s agenda — privileging the individual over society, a manichean view of morality, aggressive foreign policy, and what Costello called an “enthusiasm for Cold War posturing.”7

Pilgrim and Ormrod speak of Thatcher’s “fetish for the individual rather than society,” (pg. 9) and in this she was a fine avatar of right-wing politics, which tends to favor individual rights and actions over notions of a “social contract” and collective actions — hence the right’s enthusiasm for tax cuts, dismantling government apparatus, and eliminating “entitlements”. (Though there are some huge caveats in that philosophy as it played out under Thatcher and Reagan, as we’ll see below.)

Something of that same tension rears its head in the 1977 police strike flashback in Chapter 2 of Watchmen. “We don’ want vigilantes! We want reg’lar cops!” shouts a guy whose shirt might as well read “proletariat.” The strike is essentially the police saying “you want to handle crime as individuals? Go ahead. Good luck with that.” The Keane Act which arises from the resulting unrest is a reassertion of centralized social order over individual libertarianism, and what it represents for the genre is a fundamental challenge to the concept of superheroes.

That same question has been re-explored in superhero stories ever since, the most salient recent example being Marvel’s Civil War event and the Captain America movie patterned after it. Should we as a society allow individuals with their own agendas to act unilaterally and violently to enforce their values, or must we find a way to co-opt their actions? The conflict continues to play out in Watchmen through the oppositional viewpoints of Nova Express and The New Frontiersman. Those two publications, representing the left and the right respectively, see superheroes as an existential threat to democracy on one side, and the perfect expression of freedom on the other. That The New Frontiersmen compares the KKK favorably to superheroes, and that Moore shows us one individual’s actions causing millions of deaths, in the name of a peace we know can only be fragile and temporary, gives us a pretty good clue as to where he stands on the argument. Right?

Except… in V For Vendetta, it is the vigilante who is the hero, taking on a corrupt and oppressive dystopian regime. There, the “reg’lar cops” are complicit, and not to be trusted — much more of a threat than crime, as Evey learns in the first few pages. So maybe Moore isn’t so easy to pin down after all. Or maybe Watchmen was a form of second thoughts after V For Vendetta. The British government of V is horrific, but the American government in Watchmen is no treat either, especially in light of how it presages Moore’s later screed in Brought To Light. Yet V’s attacks are shown nobly, while Ozymandias’ unilateral vigilantism is abhorrent, as the first six pages of Chapter 12 make very, very clear.

But even that argument is an oversimplification. The truth is, neither V nor Ozymandias fits simply into a hero or villain mold, and one of the things both works have in common is that they problematize the notion of heroism, and open questions about where the lines are drawn between resistance and terrorism, between destroying lives and saving the world. It’s complicated, is what Moore is telling us, and attempts to make it seem otherwise are generally meant to manipulate you into compliance.

Moral complexity was never high on Margaret Thatcher’s list. She was a lay preacher in the Methodist church before her entry into politics, and she saw a clear connection between her economic policies and her religious beliefs. Just as the Republican party in the U.S. allied itself in the 1980s with social conservative organizations like Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, so too did Thatcher pursue her own social conservative agenda, such as banning discussion of homosexuality in public schools8 and clamping down on the distribution of “nasty” videocassettes.

Two panels from V For Vendetta. V is donning his gloves and mask, while the radio speaks: "In a speech today Mr. Adrian Karel, party prime minister for industry, stated that Britain's industrial prospects are brighter than at any time since the last war. Mr. Karel went on to say that it is the duty of every man in this country to seize the initiative and make Britain great again."

This is one of the paradoxes of Thatcherism, and Reaganism too for that matter. On the one hand, their philosophies proclaimed the the people’s rights to individual liberties. On the other hand, when it came to matters like who to marry, what to watch, and (especially in the US) legal access to safe abortions, individuals suddenly found their liberties sharply curtailed. As it turns out, while their administrations may have had a libertarian sheen, Thatcher and Reagan were more interested in the freedom of money to go where it wanted without state interference, and in the freedom of corporations to do what they wanted without regulatory interference. The people who worked for those corporations, well, they were free to come to work, but God help them if they tried to unionize, because their government was dead set against it.

Costello works through some of these same themes from a different angle in “Pills And Soap”, a song from Punch The Clock. It turns out that Costello also borrowed a superheroic trope for this song, releasing it not as Elvis Costello (already an alter ego for Declan MacManus), but as “The Imposter”, an alter ego for Elvis Costello. The lyrics themselves aren’t straightforward, but its central image of children and animals melted down to create the titular pills and soap certainly evokes the fascist British concentration camps of V For Vendetta. What made it particularly political was its release, under a pseudonym, shortly before the 1983 UK General Election in which Thatcher’s Conservative party was challenged by Labour. As it happened, the Tories (Conservatives) in that election gained 38 seats while Labour lost 58 — as Costello says in the 2003 Punch The Clock liner notes, “It was released for a limited period only and melodramatically deleted on the eve of the 1983 General Election. The need to re-issue it the following day on a celebratory red vinyl 12″ sadly never arose.”

As for moral simplicity, the most relevant Costello song is probably “Black and White World”, from Get Happy!!. That song’s primary metaphor is about comparing modern life to old films (i.e. the black-and-white world of pre-Technicolor movies), but with Costello’s usual aptitude for double meanings, it also carries a connotation of black-and-white morality, in lines like “There’ll never be days like that again / When I was just a boy and men were men.”

Where we might find a black-and-white view of morality in Watchmen? The answer seems fairly obvious, though his version of “when I was just a boy and men were men” sounds more like “They could have followed in the footsteps of good men, like my father and President Truman.” Rorschach, as we saw in our examination of Steve Ditko’s Charlton characters, is a reflection of The Question’s Objectivism, and ironically his opposition to Veidt cuts through the Gordian Knot of the Thatcherist paradox in a punk spirit, by reasserting the individual’s right to resist.

Peace In Our Time

Costello’s primary critique of Thatcher focused on her military adventurism, especially the 1982 Falklands War, in which Britain charged to the defense of some tiny islands in the South Atlantic, overseas territories left over from the high times of British colonialism in the 19th century. Argentina asserted (and still continues to assert) its sovereignty over these islands (which it calls the Malvinas), and in April of 1982 sent a force to occupy them. Thatcher’s Britain responded with a naval task force, and a 74-day conflict ensued which resulted in 907 casualties.

Liberal Brits like Costello were dismayed to see their country at war, especially in acts like the sinking of the Argentine ship General Belgrano, which was torpedoed while retreating. 321 Argentinians died in that incident, accounting for just about half the Argentine losses in the war. Meanwhile, British casualties reached the hundreds as well. Costello’s forceful response was “Shipbuilding”, a song he wrote with Clive Langer. Costello’s lyrics paint the picture of a small town whose economy depends on the jobs created by the business of constructing ships. Yet that same small town will be sending its young men off on those ships, possibly to die in conflicts like the Falklands War. Langer and Costello gave the song to British singer-songwriter Robert Wyatt, who released it in 1982 (in a single produced by Costello) to little response, but had a top 40 UK hit a year later when re-releasing it for the first anniversary of the war.

Costello released the song himself on 1983’s Punch The Clock, with a memorable trumpet solo by Chet Baker included. Alongside “Pills And Soap”, it made Punch a more political record than Costello had released in years. Goodbye Cruel World continued the trend. Songs like “The Great Unknown”, “Joe Porterhouse”, and even “The Comedians” itself had content that could easily be taken as political, though often other interpretations were possible as well. The final track, though, was unambiguous.

Photograph of Neville Chamberlain waving the Munich Agreement in his hand while standing in front of an airplane.

“Peace In Our Time”, like “Pills And Soap”, was released as a single by The Imposter, rather than Elvis Costello. It takes a wide-scoped view of war, with each verse dedicated to an era of conflict. Verse one references Neville Chamberlain‘s doomed Munich Agreement and the spectre of World War II, while reflecting that now Costello dances in Italian shoes to German disco music. Verse two cites Cold War anti-Communist hysteria, and the horrible possibilities of nuclear annihilation.

Finally, verse three discusses events that were current at the time. “Another tiny island invaded” could refer to the Falklands or to Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. “International Propaganda Star Wars” was a swipe at the US’s proposed Strategic Defense Initiative, which hoped to provide an anti-nuke “missile shield.” And the reference to spacemen in the White House addressed both the Presidential candidacy of John Glenn and Reagan’s supposed mental deficiencies.

After each of these evocations of conflict, the chorus repeats:

And the bells take their toll once again in a victory chime
And we can thank God that we’ve finally got peace in our time

The irony is layers deep here. For one thing, the title phrase connects directly with the image of Chamberlain in the lyrics:

Out of the aeroplane stepped Chamberlain with a condemned man’s stare
But we all cheered wildly, a photograph was taken,
As he waved a piece of paper in the air

There is indeed a famous photograph of that moment, Chamberlain just having returned from Germany with an agreement to allow Hitler to annex Czechoslovakia in exchange for peace between the UK and Germany. Even more famously, Chamberlain said that day, “I believe it is peace for our time. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts. Go home and get a nice quiet sleep.” Hitler continued invading countries, and less than a year later the UK was at war with Germany. Today the phrase is mainly remembered (and slightly misquoted) ironically.

From that initial irony, we get the additional fact that the chorus repeats after every cycle of war in the verses. Though a chorus of victory chimes may ring over and over, and though we may declare that peace has arrived at last, there’s always another verse of battle just around the corner. Finally, there’s a play on “toll” — bells toll, but they don’t “take their toll.” Wars do that, and the peace they bring to many is the peace of the grave, over which funeral bells ring.

And now we’re back to Watchmen, in which The Comedian is the first casualty of Ozymandias’ peace campaign, a “practical joke” which he believes will bring lasting peace, not seeing how closely he resembles Chamberlain in front of that aeroplane.

In the liner notes for the 1995 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World, Costello writes of the song, “If it now seems like a relic of those days of anti-nuclear dread then I hope it stays that way.” On the next reissue, he says, “Writing in the late spring of ’04, the title of this piece seems a more distant prospect than ever. I have to hope that this flawed song doesn’t sound like a sick joke by November.” Much like in 1983, I don’t think Costello got the result he was hoping for. I doubt Ozymandias does either.

Previous Entry: Absent Friends


1Granted, the first one takes place entirely indoors and there is no supplemental information elsewhere in the book to elucidate the time. However, there are a few hints that, taken together, strongly suggest that this is a night-time scene. First, the window on panel 1 of page 5 shows only darkness. Second, Night Owl suggests that they “go back to the Owl’s Nest for a beer”, something less likely to happen in the middle of the day. Finally, the clock in panel 9 of page 7 shows (of course), a few minutes to 12:00, which given the previous two clues is much more likely to be midnight than noon. Moreover, we know from Under The Hood that Hollis Mason’s police work was his “day job”, and his superheroing took place mostly at night, hence his nickname. All these factors combined make me confident that the first Comedian flashback in Chapter Two takes place close to midnight. [Back to post]

2In the liner notes to the 2002 reissue of Get Happy!!, an album of Motown-style songs that he released after the incident. [Back to post]

3All from a 1982 Rolling Stone interview with Greil Marcus. [Back to post]

4Liner notes to the 1995 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. [Back to post]

5Liner notes to the 2004 reissue of Goodbye Cruel World. [Back to post]

6In fact, as I argue in my post about London Calling, one of the ultimate expressions of punk rock was The Clash’s rebellion against the shibboleths of punk rock itself. [Back to post]

7Liner notes from the 2003 reissue of Trust [Back to post]

8This, too, is complicated by the fact that early in her political career, Thatcher voted to decriminalize abortion and homosexuality. Her later swing towards social conservatism may have been more a matter of practicality than of conviction, or it could have been a genuine change of heart. With politicians it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? [Back to post]

Album Assignments: Hello, I Must Be Going!

The high school flashback continues with Phil Collins’ 1982 album Hello, I Must Be Going!. Just like Making Movies, this was another teenage mainstay for me, especially when in the throes of relationship angst. I have vivid memories of loading up “I Don’t Care Anymore” and driving way too fast on country backroads while singing at the top of my lungs. (Sorry, Mom and Dad.)

Now, let’s face it, at some point Phil Collins jumped the shark. In fact, I have argued in the past that the musical equivalent of jumping the shark should be called “Sussudioing.” However, I would also argue that what makes his shark-jumping so clear is how great he was before it happened, and this album was definitely part of the great period.

Not that there weren’t a couple of hints. Probably the clearest indication of his future direction is in his cover of The Supremes’ “You Can’t Hurry Love.” Now, credit where due: this is a bright, breezy, fun version of the song. In fact, as an 80’s kid, I think Collins’ version was my introduction to that song, and alongside reruns of The Big Chill on cable, it prompted me to seek out a bunch of Motown originals. I’m richer for that. Not only that, the song was a big hit for Collins, hitting Number One in the UK and breaching the Top Ten in the US. Phil probably saw this as a big neon finger pointing the way to what the public wanted to hear from him.

Hello I Must Be Going album cover

In the context of this album, though, it’s quite jarringly out of place. The only other track with a similar lightness of tone is “Like China”, in which Collins adopts a broad, comedic Cockney accent to play a rough-edged character in love with a girl from a different social class. Collins totally hams it up in character, singing “Oy know ‘oo oy am!” and so forth, promising to hold this delicate girl like china, prove to her brother that he’s no “limp-wristed wimp”, and make himself presentable for her parents. It’s all pretty goofy.

Compare that to the other character piece on Hello, an incredibly dark piece of work called “Thru These Walls.” This is the story of a lonely man in an apartment, whose pleasure comes from putting a glass to his wall and listening to his neighbors’ sexual romps. At least, that’s his night-time activity. During the days he gazes out his window at the children below, struggling with his sexual desire for them. “Am I really asking a lot?”, he muses, “Just to reach out and touch somebody?” Well, yes. That grim, desperate tone is much more typical of the rest of this record.

Oh, there are horn sections and plenty of them. But while The Phenix Horns (who had also appeared on Face Value) may have polished songs like “It Don’t Matter To Me” and “I Cannot Believe It’s True” to mirror-brightness, they couldn’t disguise the snarling anger of the lyrics. Both of these songs are furious accusations of lies and betrayal. “I Cannot Believe” lives up to its title as an incredulous expression of disbelief, but it knows the truth underneath — “(Over and over) I keep on telling myself / (Over and over) I’m hope I’m gonna wake up / But (over and over) I know it’s really happening / And there’s nothing that I can say.” “It Don’t Matter” takes the matter a step further, accusing the subject of lying (“I’ve heard it all so many times before”), and following up with a menacing promise: “There’s no way that you can run / Cos I’m gonna find you / And there’s nobody that you can turn to / Cos I’ll be behind you, just to remind you…”

Yes, they’re peppy, and yes they’re poppy, and yeah, they’re pretty brassy, but these are not lighthearted pop songs. Rather, they are seething with rage underneath the dazzling horns. Sometimes Collins just goes straight to the rage, as in the rather self-explanatory “Do You Know, Do You Care?” Again, the theme is lies and betrayal: “You said you would, you didn’t, and I wanna know why / And don’t make no excuses.” And once again, there’s an underlying threat: “I watch you, yes every day I watch you pass me by / I’ll get you, yes in the end I’ll get you / Just watch me try.” But there are no happy trumpets here, just a huge drumbeat, a ringing vocal echo, and a deep, buzzy synth drone.

And that brings us to “I Don’t Care Anymore.” In my estimation, this song is the absolute masterpiece of Hello, I Must Be Going!. Collins divorced his first wife in 1980, and critics called 1981’s Face Value his “divorce album”, but it seems he still had plenty of anger a year later. It’s in most of the album’s songs, but this is the most concentrated dose, and its place as the opening track makes it very clear what the record will be about.

“I Don’t Care Anymore” starts with a portentous drumbeat, unadorned, pounding out fury. Of all the songs on this album, this is the one most ruled by Collins the drummer, and the drums stay center stage throughout the song, underlined by sustained chords on the synth. Over this foundation, Collins lays venomous lyrics in an anguished vocal, spurning his former lover with unbelievable ferocity. Truly, if you’ve been burned in love, this is just the song for you. I recommend high volume and high speeds. (NOTE: Not an actual recommendation.)

Finally, towards the end, when the anger has spent itself at last, we get a couple of tender and exhausted songs. “Don’t Let Him Steal Your Heart Away” starts with a lovely piano, and contrition: “You were lonely and you needed a friend.” From there, the song goes into some familiar possessive territory (as the title indicates), alongside apologies: “What else can I do but say I was wrong?” Then at the end of the album we hear a man who’s worn out from marital strife, facing another fight and asking, “Why can’t it wait ’til morning?”, thinking that things will be clearer in the daylight, and hoping that if they wait until “next time”, that time may never come.

The irony is, as this song was released, his marriage was long over. The conflict he’d tried to put off had blown up in his face. Not only that, we as listeners now know that Collins had two more marriages and divorces in his future, not to mention a fair bit of sussudioing. So let it wait ’til morning, but in the morning it’s still there, unavoidable. Phil Collins is a bit of a tragic figure today, once respected but now serving as a punchline more than a role model. But damn, back in the day he sure could write a hell of a divorce album. Or two.

Geek Bowl XI answer recap

And now, the Geek Bowl XI answers!

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Geek Bowl XI question recap

By the numbers: I’ve been going to Geek Bowl for 8 years now, the last 4 of which my team has been made up of the same 6 people. Ever since that team coalesced, we have placed either first or second in every Geek Bowl we’ve played in… until now. Geek Bowl XI was not our night, and we ended up in a 4-way tie for 15th place. Now in perspective, that is 15th out of 212 teams — still a damn good showing! But it’s not where we’ve been, and not where we wanted to be. As I recap the questions and answers, I’ll narrate where we misstepped — it was a lot of going the wrong way on coin flips, and a lot of almost-but-not-QUITE-right answers, along with some plain knowledge gaps.

Before that, though, I’d like to raise a glass to my team, who this year was named Mothra Hoople:

Group photo of Team Mothra

Going clockwise from the top left, that’s Don, Jonathan, Brian, George, me, and Larry. This shot was taken before all of us were fully decked out in our MOTHRA t-shirts, but it does showcase the pink hats we wore to honor Brian’s wife Tina, who’s currently undergoing chemotherapy for cancer. Part of what makes Geek Bowl so enjoyable for me is the chance to play trivia with these five guys, who are all smart, funny, and good company. Wherever we end up placing at the end of the night, Geek Bowl is always a great time because I’m on this team.

Part of what I love about us is the teamwork, synergy, and trust we’ve got going. Those qualities were put to the test this year, as things started to unravel for us and we struggled against difficult conditions to find our way towards answers. There are some fierce, intense competitors in this group, and it’s tough when we start to feel the game slipping away from us. But you know what never happened? Bitching. Finger-pointing. Sarcasm. Pettiness. There was some self-recrimination going around, but nobody ever got pissy with anybody else about an answer, even when people (myself included) had fought for answers that turned out to be wrong. Believe me, that is not a given in a team trivia game.

Part of what helps us hold things together are the rules we’ve evolved over the years. Here now in their annual presentation:

Mothra’s Rules Of Pub Trivia

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

These may sound easy to follow, but they are not. I personally failed on rule 3A this year, as I’ll explain below. Rule 1B is incredibly easy to overlook when focusing on a single question. And rule 9 can be a tough standard to live up to when time is very limited and ticking down before your eyes. Still, this overall structure gives us the best shot at effectively pooling our collective knowledge in a way that is quick and efficient. We had a rough go of it this year, but I know we’ll be back, because this is an excellent team that works very well together.

But enough about Mothra, how about the event itself? Geek Bowl was held in Seattle this year, in a bit of a strange venue. We convened in a cavernous building called “Smith Cove Terminal.” Near as I can tell, this is a place you go when you and 1,000 other people are getting ready to go on a cruise. Everybody gathers in the terminal building, which is pretty much a huge long rectangular hangar (though without the super-high ceilings) and mills around until they board the ship.

The way Geeks Who Drink used this building was to set up a stage at one end, and screens throughout, placed strategically among the couple-hundred tables set up for the teams. There were four bars placed around the edges of the rectangle, and six food trucks parked outside. At the other end of the rectangle from the stage were chairs set up for spectators, who pay the same price as contestants.

At this point, the Geek Bowl organizers have earned a reputation for a smooth, well-run event, and while most of that still held true, I feel like the venue was a miss this year. Every year prior to this one, Geek Bowl has been held at some kind of theater or arena, a space physically and acoustically set up to focus attention on a stage. The cruise ship terminal had none of these properties, and as a result, sound was muddy and distorted while sightlines were dismal, especially for teams placed behind us (we were about a third of the way back from the stage.) I think the intent was that cameras would film the stage action and that therefore teams wouldn’t need to see the stage directly, but the cameras were placed oddly, generally capturing side-views of the action, and for some reason the director repeatedly delayed cutting away from PowerPoint slides to the camera feed. Add to that the long, slow lines at the food trucks (most of which left before the first break), and the fact that one of the two men’s bathrooms on our level was closed shortly after the first round ended, and you get a fairly frustrating participant experience.

I feel for the Geeks — this event has gotten bigger and bigger, and I’m sure it is a major challenge to find a place that can provide a stage, sound system, and video clearly visible to all areas, and can also provide enough space to set up a couple hundred tables and 1200 chairs. Geek Bowl 10 was in an arena, and even so a number of teams weren’t able to sit at tables, having to make do with fixed arena seating instead. Along with that, the venue must provide some kind of food and drink options (alcohol a must, given the the company’s name and reputation), and not charge an exorbitant amount for rent on a Saturday night. And the flooded bathroom thing this year was just bad luck. But nevertheless, I hope next year returns us to more of a theater/arena type configuration — it just works better for this kind of event.

The Geek Bowl Format

For those of you who aren’t familiar with how Geek Bowl works, not to mention my recaps of it, I’ve got some explanations and disclaimers for you. This is pretty much copy-pasted (with a few adjustments) from previous years’ posts, so if you already know the drill, feel free to skip down to Opening Ceremonies.

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

Second, I consider these recaps a tribute to the excellent question writers of the Geek Bowl, and an advertisement for a really fun event, but I am in no way officially associated with Geeks Who Drink, and I have not been supplied with question material. The recap below is not a verbatim representation of the Geek Bowl 11 questions. It is reconstructed from my notes and memories, which are very fallible. I do take photos of some of the question slides — cameras are allowed at Geek Bowl as long as they can’t receive data. However, even those slides are very frequently paraphrases rather than verbatim reproductions of the questions as read. I am certain I have left out some of the cleverness, some of the humor, and some of the pinning precision. Anything in the questions and answers below that is wrong or crappy is my fault, not theirs.

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

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

The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions — usually, each question is worth one point, so there’s a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points — for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it’s usually only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the “Random Knowledge” round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year’s Geek Bowl, two other rounds offered additional points: we could see from the pre-printed answer sheets that question #8 in Round 3 would have 8 answers, for a total of 15 answers in the round, and that there were two answer spaces for each question in Round 4, for a total of 16 points available in that round.

Finally, a team can choose one round to “joker”, meaning that it earns double points for that round. Obviously, you’d want that to be one of the 15 or 16-point rounds, unless you really believed you wouldn’t score above 8 in any of them, which is highly unlikely. We discussed our jokering strategy ahead of time, and decided on thresholds. We used to have a threshold of 14 for the music round, but a super-tough round 8 in 2015 made us back off from that. So this year our threshold for Round 2 was 13, and the threshold for Rounds 3 and 4 was 12. If we felt confident in getting at least that amount, we’d joker the round, and if we didn’t feel that good about any of them, we’d wait for Round 8.

Opening Ceremonies

This year the show began with “Principal Dicker” (John Dicker is the CEO of Geeks Who Drink) introducing a Seattle history pageant staged by a faux 5th-grade class, actually a bunch of GWD quizmasters. This consisted of a bunch of mini-skits portraying events like Captain Vancouver’s arrival and Jimi Hendrix learning to play guitar, each of which bizarrely ended with square dancing. This felt a little flat to me, though I can’t tell whether that’s from the aforementioned audio/video issues or because it just wasn’t that funny.

The fun factor went up a few notches after that, though, with this awesome thing:

With that, let’s start the recap! Our team’s experiences are listed in [square brackets], and the answers are provided in a separate post.


After the Love Boat video, some Geek I couldn’t see very well mentioned that there were 212 teams playing this year, and that the event was sold out, but there was one more Seattle guy who had wanted to participate, so they invited him to say a little something onstage… and out walks Ken Jennings! Not sure why I didn’t see this coming, given that Jennings lives in Seattle and is no stranger to big trivia events, but for me it was a very pleasant surprise. Jennings was his usual witty and charming self, as when he got in a dig at the top prize money — “$11,000? So, that’s like a Daily Double for me, I guess.”

Jennings then read the “ceremonial first question.” As they’ve done the past few years, the Geeks asked a tiebreaker question whose answer is a number calculated from various trivia answers. Unlike the past few years, the tiebreaker was the very first question asked, probably to give Jennings something meaningful to do. The question was this:

Take the sum of the current ages of Donald Trump’s wives, and multiply it by the number of commercially available varieties of Newman’s Own salad dressings. Subtract from the result the number of sites administered by the National Park Service. Or, to put it another way:

(W x D) – P

where W = Trump’s wives’ ages summed, D = number of Newman’s Own salad dressing varieties, and P = sites administered by the National Park Service.

See the answers

Round 1: Sound Off

With the tiebreaker out of the way, we launched into Round 1. The Geeks love wordplay, and they love bringing together unexpected categories, hence Round 1, whose title was “Sound Off” and whose subject was “noises and inlets.”

1. Slick Goodlin was Bell’s sound-barrier test pilot, before the Air Force took over the X-1 project and filled the seat with what captain?
2. The Inside Passage is a handy way — and in fact pretty much the only way — to get to what U.S. state capital?
3. In 2016, what microblogging company invested $70 million in Soundcloud? [This was the one question in this round we really struggled with, debating back and forth between two answers before finally settling on… the wrong one. Sorry to say, I was one of the people arguing for the wrong answer.]
4. Bahia de Cochinos is the local name for what inlet that was newsworthy for a few weeks in 1961?
5. Dr. Dischord collected all sorts of terrible noises, in what classic kids’ book by Norton Juster? [Amusingly, one of our warmup topics from earlier that day was kid-lit. I would say “Preparation FTW!”, but since we came in 15th I guess it’s more like “Preparation For This One Question!” FT1Q!]
6. Dionne Warwick still can’t tell us how to get to what city of 1 million at the southeast tip of San Francisco Bay?
7. Orfield Labs maintains a room so quiet it will make you hallucinate, in what Central Time city that is also home to U.S. Bank stadium?
8. The laryngeal inlet connects your larynx to what similarly named other part of the throat?

[We ended up with 7 correct answers in this round. So far, so good!]
See the answers

Round 2: Not The World’s Oldest Profession

Round 2 is always a music round in a GWD quiz, and for the past several years at Geek Bowl, they’ve hired one band to cover the 8 songs in the round (in snippets of around 30 seconds), as well as to entertain the crowd during scoring breaks. In past years, the band has had some kind of comedy or novelty quality — The Dan Band from 2015 is an all-male group that foulmouths its way through all-female songs, and Metalachi from 2016 is, well, heavy metal mariachi.

This year, however, the Geeks played it straight by hiring the Brooklyn disco-flavored band Escort, who are fronted by Adeline Michèle and feature choreographed backup singers and the works. It was clear that Escort is a good band, but the acoustically hostile room really worked against them, at least from where we were sitting. We could barely make out a word Michèle was singing much of the time, and our attempts to lip-read from the screens were foiled by the video director’s strange reluctance to cut from a static slide reading something like “Question 5” to an actual feed of the band. We’d generally get to see them perform each song partially and eventually, but it was frustrating to be stymied in our attempts both to see and hear what the band was doing. Our only hope was to recognize a melody or bass line, which worked some of the time. On the other hand, the Philly team Independence Hall And Oates was at the table right behind ours, and they ended up taking 2nd place in the whole Bowl, so maybe acoustics wasn’t our biggest problem.

In any case, the theme of this round was professions — either the title of the song or the name of the artist would contain the name of a profession. That name may or may not be spelled correctly, and that profession may or may not be legal, but it would be in there somewhere. When I first posted this recap, all I could do was list the answers, since I had no way of recapping the questions. However, since then the Geeks have posted video of Escort (sounding much clearer than they did to us.) Thanks, Geeks!

[We got a total of 11 on this one, missing #3 and #5 completely, and getting the song wrong on #8. We certainly didn’t feel good enough about it to joker. So combined with our previous round, that gave us a total of 18.]
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Round 3: Justice Is Served

Round 3 of a typical Geeks Who Drink quiz is typically some sort of gimmick round, but the vast majority of the time, they boil down to either a round of 50/50 (i.e. “this or that”) type questions, or a speed round in which you have something like 2 minutes to name 8 members from some category. In Geek Bowl, round 3 is pretty much always 50/50, and sometimes is combined with something else, as was the case this year. The questions were on the topic of justice:

1. Who sought justice in the form of a “pound of flesh”: MacBeth or Shylock?
2. If you go to jail looking for justice, that’s what you’ll find: just us. This is a paraphrase of a quote by whom: Richard Pryor or Tupac?
3. Yes or no: is the Department of Justice headed by the Secretary of Justice?
4. Who is directing this year’s Justice League movie: Ben Affleck or Zack Snyder?
5. That statue of a blindfolded lady you see in front of courthouses: did the Romans call her “Justitia” or “Prudentia”? [We were so sure about our answer on this one. Too bad we were wrong.]
6. Who was married to 1990s baseball star David Justice: Halle Berry or Holly Robinson?
7. Poetic Justice was the sophomore film from what director: John Singleton or Mario Van Peebles?

Then question 8 was in fact a speed round. We had an additional 2 minutes on top of the usual 2-minute timer to answer the following question: “From 1991 to 2016, eight justices left the U.S. Supreme Court, one way or another. Name them.”

[We felt really good about all our answers to this round, and confidently jokered. Then we found out later that we’d gone the wrong way on #2 and #5, as well as misstepping on one of the eight justices. So we ended up with 12, doubled to 24, and added to our previous tally of 18 for a total of 42. Well, even if we’d known in advance we were only getting 12, we still would have jokered per our agreed-upon threshold. But it was a bummer to do worse than we’d anticipated.]
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Round 4: I Once Was A Man From Nantucket

This was my favorite round from this year’s Geek Bowl. The premise was that each question was a limerick that described a memoir written in the last 15 years (with the publication year provided in the question). We had to name the title and author of each book, for a total of 16 possible points. The questions were tough, but so cleverly written that I enjoyed them even as they were killing us.

1. (2013)
I grew up educated as hell,
And I told other girls to as well.
The Taliban fussed,
And they shot up my bus —
Now please, may I have a Nobel?

2. (2011)
I guess I’ll just come out and say,
Since I know that you’ll ask anyway:
A dude with a knife
Cut my face; I was five.
Now let’s talk Sarah Palin, OK?

3. (2003)
While rehab unscrambled my brain,
I got root canals sans Novocaine.
Too hardcore for AA
I was — oh, by the way,
I made most of this up on the train.

4. (2014)
I hope I don’t sound like a whina —
I’m obsessed with myself and that’s fine-a.
Surely no one will mind
If I talk of the time
I found rocks in my sister’s vagina.

5. (2011)
Once I threw my kid out in the cold
for not listening — she’s three years old.
I’m a bad Chinese mama
(From west Indiana),
But hey, controversy is gold!

6. (2008)
If you’d like to write undeterred,
The running shoe sharpens the word.
But six miles a day
Isn’t easy, I’d say —
It’s not like I’m some wind-up bird.

7. (2016)
My friends quit their jobs ’cause they’re bored,
And got cell phones that I can’t afford.
This redneck malaise
Fosters social decays —
How’s the South gonna rise up? Good Lord!

8. (2012)
I don’t make child porn, I’m no creep —
But my settlements never come cheap.
And if you think twice,
You’ll see it was nice
When I likened that girl to my Jeep.

[As much as I enjoyed the writing in this round, the results for us were quite brutal. We got a total of seven points. In a 16-point round. OUCH. Added to our previous tally of 42, that brought us to 49. This is a great example of the Geeks trying to shake up the results by pouring a lot of points into one topic area, which some people in the room were inevitably going to nail, but many others were going to flail. This time, we were in the latter group.]
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At this point, the Geeks took a scoring break. Escort played, and men stood in long lines for the bathroom. After the scores were tallied, answers were shown for rounds 1-4, and then the team rankings were displayed onscreen. We were in 30th place.

Round 5: Checks And Phalluses

Remember how I mentioned that although the raunch has been toned down, it’s also always there? Well, here it is, once again presented in an ingenious and fun way. Round 5 was a video round, in which the Geeks presented 8 different rebuses whose answers were world leaders. They provided the years in which the leader was in power, but other than that we were on our own. Each of these rebuses (well, all except one) hinged on a dick joke — a key to each one was some slang for penis.

Previously I had just listed the answers here, but now the Geeks have posted the video, so I can just present that. Thanks, Geeks!

[The was the one and only round we aced in Geek Bowl 11, and about half of those answers are thanks to Jonathan, who was not only lightning-fast at figuring out the rebuses, but was also aware of some world leaders about whom the rest of us were clueless. Thank you Jonathan! So 8 points on that brought our total up to 57.]
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Round 6: Muppety Womenfolk

There are quite a few women who participate in Geek Bowl, but they are still a minority — I’d say the room averaged about 70%-75% men. In response to this, the Geeks often try to include female-friendly categories, and this year that meant a round about feminism. Well, half about feminism and half about the Muppets, because, um…

1. In 1975, Jim Henson created a weekly bit called “The Land Of Gorch” for what nascent TV show?
2. Though they most likely wouldn’t be friends with each other, both Richard Nixon and Lucretia Mott belonged to what historically Christian sect, which was also called The Society Of Friends?
3. The least essential of their early movies, The Muppets Take Manhattan featured a cameo by what then-Mayor of New York City?
4. The second-wave feminist cornerstone The Feminine Mystique by Betty Friedan, and the third-wave classic Gender Trouble by Judith Butler both drew on the 1949 book The Second Sex, by what renowned social theorist?
5. Kermit The Frog made an unexpected cameo as a shopper at Dustin Hoffman’s titular store, in what 2007 box office bomb?
6. Rebecca Walker coined the phrase “Third Wave Feminism” in 1992, ten years after her mom published what Pulitzer Prize-winning novel?
7. The Muppets used a dream to weigh in on the Duncan family’s house-rebuilding decision, on a 2013 episode of what Disney Channel series? [Talk about a topic we have no idea about. Half of us have no kids, and the other half’s kids are either too old for the Disney Channel or are uninterested in it.]
8. We all know women only make 78 cents for every male dollar, but which group makes a measly 54% compared to white men: Black women or Latinas? [This was the first coin-flip of the day we debated on and actually landed on the right answer.]

[We blanked on #7, and had yet another EVER-SO-CLOSE but wrong answer on #5 (see the Answers section), leaving us with 6 points in that round. 57 + 6 = 63 as our running total.]
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Round 7: Geek Kune Do

A couple of years ago in Albuquerque, the Geeks hired a dance company to perform famous dances from movies. This year was a variation on that — they hired actors with expertise in stage combat to re-enact famous fight scenes from movies. Unfortunately, while the dancers at Albuquerque were very easy to see, the long rectangle of Smith Cove terminal made it quite tough to make out details of the fight scenes, and the side-angle camera views and garbly acoustics didn’t help matters. Not only that, each fight scene was performed only once for some reason, making the visual/audio even higher stakes than normal. We muddled through nevertheless.

It’s tough to describe these scenes without giving away the answers, so I’ll just give the answer first and then a brief description of the fight scene.

1. Shaun Of The Dead (the scene where the characters fight a zombie with pool cues, to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now”.)
2. Bridget Jones’ Diary (the scene where Colin Firth fights Hugh Grant, to The Weather Girls’ “It’s Raining Men”.) [We were not familiar with this movie, so guessed “The Adventures of Priscilla Queen Of The Desert” based on the musical accompaniment.]
3. Oldboy (the scene where a hammer-wielding character takes on 25 guys.) [Okay, here’s where I screwed up rule 3A. We didn’t know this scene automatically, so we were discussing it under a lot of time pressure. I knew there was a famous fight scene in Oldboy where one guy takes on a lot of other guys. So as everybody was throwing stuff out, I said, “What about Oldboy?”, but did not do a good job of making sure everyone knew that answer was on the table. Because the discussion was fast-paced and a little chaotic, nobody else heard me. I had not seen the movie, and did not know that the solo fighter was carrying a hammer, or else this would have been a lock. Instead, we cued off the hammer and went down a different path, guessing Avengers: Age Of Ultron, thinking of a Thor hallucination scene. George had remembered him being overcome by enemies in that scene, which does happen but in a fairly different way.]
4. Fight Club (the scene in which Edward Norton kicks the crap out of himself.)
5. Kill Bill, Vol. 2 (Uma Thurman vs. Daryl Hannah in a trailer.)
6. The Karate Kid (come on, could there be any doubt which fight scene it is?)
7. Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? (This was an amusing twist on the “fight scene” concept — a bitter argument between George and Martha in which no blows are exchanged but plenty of blood is drawn.)
8. Happy Gilmore (Adam Sandler vs. Bob Barker)

[Brian rocked the dance questions in Albuquerque, and he was great at these fight questions too. Given that his main gig is a podcast about cover songs, I have to wonder if his expertise extends to covers of movies as well. Anyway, we whiffed on #2 and #3, giving us 6 points for the round and a total of 69 for the game thus far.]

After this was another scoring break, during which Escort played again, and the Geeks showed a couple of videos, starting with the annual “In Memoriam” tradition. Let’s watch it, and then let’s talk. Warning, though, there are spoilers within for: Stranger Things, Supernatural, Westworld, Orange Is The New Black, The Walking Dead, Star Wars: Rogue One, and Game of Thrones. If you’d like to avoid those, you can skip to 4:47 for the part that’s relevant below.

So, the woman at the end was Cindy Stowell, who won an incredible six times on Jeopardy! while suffering from Stage 4 cancer. I didn’t know Cindy personally, but she was a frequent Geeks Who Drink player in Austin, and a participant in my online trivia league. Between the many testimonials I read there and the fundamentally moving nature of her story, her episodes were very emotional for me. Her appearance as the capstone of the Geek Bowl In Memoriam video was absolutely perfect, and devastating. Anybody with any connection to her story was misty-eyed to say the least. Well done, Geeks.

After that was a silly fake movie trailer for “Geeks Who Drink: The Movie”. This couldn’t help but fall a little flat after the emotional peak of the In Memoriam video, and it was also quite difficult to hear for various reasons. Oh well. At last scores were tallied, the answers shown for rounds 5-7, and the ranks displayed: we’d moved from 30th to 23rd.

Round 8: Random Knowledge

As I say every year, Round 8 is always “random knowledge”, i.e. no particular theme, and questions that can span any domain. In the pub quiz, the point values vary from question to question, but in Geek Bowl each round 8 question is always worth two points.

1. Other than Jesus Christ himself, which two Old Testament dudes are the first two people mentioned in the New Testament?
2. a) The bark of the cinchona tree gives us what anti-malaria medicine? b) Usually it’s cassia bark that you’re actually buying when you pick up a jar of what common spice? [We were all pretty on top of the first question, but I think it was Jonathan who got part two for us.]
3. Besides the University of Connecticut, what two schools have won the NCAA Women’s Division 1 Basketball Tournament in this decade? [We had some debate about whether “this decade” meant “in the last 10 years” or “in the 2010s.” This is the one question on which GWD’s writing could have been a little sharper. It turns out to have meant the latter, since there are actually a whole three non-UConn teams that have won in the past 10 years.]
4. After the split from the chimpanzees, but before the rise of Homo, there were two genera of bipedal hominids, whose names start with a vowel. In fact, they start with the same vowel. Name them.
5. a) In 2017, Rockstar Games is publishing a much-anticipated sequel to what old-timey 2010 game? b) However, despite our letter-writing campaign, they are still not updating their XBox 360 launch title about what indoor sport? [We had no idea on part two, so we tossed around bunches of indoor sports, and ended up perfectly nailing the right one. Too little, too late, sadly.]
6. Name each popular, bygone blog from its final three post headlines. a) “My So-Called Life”, “Roller Derby”, and “The TED Conference”. b) “How Things Work”, “Letters From Our Exes”, and “How Guilty Should I Feel?” [We could only think of one popular, bygone blog, so we filled it in for both blanks.]
7. a) What German composed the famous wedding march for his suite from A Midsummer Night’s Dream? b) The characters getting married in the play were what Athenian duke and Amazon queen? [Happy to say our answer for part two was my contribution.]
8. a) Editor Anna Wintour’s proxy in The Devil Wears Prada went by what name? b) Wintour cut her teeth as a fashion editor at a Guccione-owned erotic magazine for women, which shared its name with what brand of paper towels? [Jonathan got us to part one, and George nailed part two. That guy really knows his… consumer products.]

[Not a terrible final round for us — 12 points, same as Round 2. But it would have taken a lot more than that to get us on stage. Our final total by my reckoning was 81 points. Interestingly, the final standings of Geek Bowl showed us at 83, which makes me wonder whether they took some of our close-but-not-quite answers after all.]
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I’ll end with the one video the Geeks have released thus far, which is actually an amalgam of two videos played at Geek Bowl. The first part, in which Marty Walsh (the mayor of Boston) welcomes Boston teams and announces the location of Geek Bowl 12, actually played right after Ken Jennings’ opening question. The second part, with the Neil Diamond music, played as teams were leaving the terminal.

Looking forward to it, Boston!