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. As usual, I don’t have any way of presenting the audio clips (though the Geeks did just release round 2 from the previous two Geek Bowls, so maybe someday!) So I’ll skip straight to the answers, capitalizing the profession:

1. Twenty One PILOTS – Stressed Out
2. Natalie MERCHANT – Wonder
3. USHER – Burn [We struggled mightily on this one. Perhaps if we’d been able to hear some lyrics, but as it was we guessed Nelly and “My Boo”, whose title turns out to be “Dilemma” anyway, and in any case is totally unconnected to a profession. Time pressure got to us and we forgot rule 1B.]
4. TAYLOR Swift – Love Story
5. The Decemberists – Here I Dreamt I Was An ARCHITECT [Not a single Decemberists fan at our table, lamentably.]
6. Curtis Mayfield – PUSHERman [Huge props to Jonathan for nailing this one.]
7. Night RANGER – Sister Christian
8. DR. Dre – Let Me Ride [We were trying to guess artists who had a profession in their names, and between that and recognizing the style we got Dr. Dre, but guessed wrong on the song, going for “Nothin’ But A G Thang”.]

[So a total of 11 on this one, since we missed #3 and #5 completely and got 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.]

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.]
See the answers

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.]
See the answers

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.]
See the answers

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.]
See the answers

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.]
See the answers

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!

Album Assignments: Making Movies

In the fall of 1985, the album that absolutely dominated the airwaves was Brothers In Arms by Dire Straits. It seemed like you couldn’t go an hour in the day without hearing “Money For Nothing” or “Walk Of Life” or “So Far Away.” Also that fall, I was a sophomore in high school and cementing my friendship with Robby. One of our main sources of bonding was music, and we spent many a contented hour in one basement or the other, listening to and discussing our favorite bands. I dug Brothers, and when I mentioned that, Robby said, “Well then, you really have to listen to Making Movies.”

So he loaned me the CD, and I listened. And then I listened again. And then I bought it myself, and listened again, and again, and again, and again. I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say I’ve listened to this album literally hundreds of times. It became one of the most important albums in my emotional high school life. I can still remember the school folders upon which I dutifully handwrote the lyrics to “Romeo and Juliet”, “Hand In Hand”, and “Solid Rock”. And I’ve always associated this record with Robby, which I suppose made it only a matter of time until I assigned it for us to revisit.

What is it that makes this disc so special for me? Well, certainly there’s the fact that I was 15 when I fell in love with it. That always helps to seal the deal. And because of that, I suppose I can’t find a place to stand that’s outside of my own intense emotional reaction, which by the way still happens every time I hear Making Movies. All I can do is stand where I’m standing, and tell you why I think this album is pure magic.

Album cover for Making Movies

Let’s start with the guitar playing of Mark Knopfler. That’s a fine place to start when discussing any Dire Straits record, but this one may be the shiniest of shining examples. No, wait. The shiniest example is the first one: “Sultans of Swing”. That was the record with which Knopfler debuted his extraordinary style, in which he and the guitar perform a song-length call-and-response conversation, each continually topping the other for eloquence until the final outro solo, in which the guitar declares a decisive victory.

No, that song isn’t on Making Movies. But what it accomplished in a 5:49 single, Making Movies sustains for well over half an hour. In “Tunnel Of Love” that sounds like a continued conversation in the “Sultans” style, a trading of leads between the guitar and the lyrics. In “Expresso Love” it starts out as a riff, turning into a rhythm part that intertwines with the vocal line, each one equal partners in the dance, both of them layering onto the initial part, then welcoming another layer of a different rhythm part, which then resolves into full solo, which then gets another solo layered onto it in counterpoint, before the whole structure drops away to expose the fundamental riff again. In “Romeo And Juliet” it’s a gorgeous melody played acoustic with impeccable style and tone, threading a path into the full song, in which it keens sweetly in harmony with Romeo’s streetsuss serenade, joined at the end by an electric, echoing the melody and echoing itself.

At every point, Knopfler’s guitar sound directs the music to where it’s supposed to go, whether that’s someplace delicate or muscular, wistful or ecstatic, sometimes all in the same song. It’s the defining sound of Dire Straits — aside from David Gilmour, I’ve never heard a guitarist who can coax so much emotion out of the instrument. But more than that, Knopfler’s songwriting style pulls off this remarkable trick of placing the guitar in equal importance to the vocal, making every song into a duet even though there’s only one singer.

Still, as important as Knopfler is in the band’s sound, this Dire Straits album has a secret weapon: the incredible piano playing of Roy Bittan. When I saw who was credited with the keyboards on this album, I had to laugh. How many of my favorite records does this guy play on? Sure, he’s in the E Street Band, so there are all those great Springsteen albums. And of course (for me), he’s a fundamental part of the sound on Stevie Nicks’ first two solo albums, Bella Donna and The Wild Heart. Top that with his phenomenal work on Bat Out Of Hell. Add to that appearances with Peter Gabriel, Patti Smith, Jackson Browne, and David Bowie. He even plays on Car Wheels On A Gravel Road!

With Making Movies, his keyboards are the first thing we hear. There’s the warbly organ playing Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Carousel Waltz”, almost more of a sound effect than a musical part, but right behind it is Bittan’s piano, doubling the melody, then dropping into arpeggios of increasing intensity until the curtain is swept aside and the full band jumps onstage for “Tunnel Of Love.” The effect is one in which sweetness, suspense, and a powerful yearning all combine to introduce a song that dramatizes those same feelings with stunning force. The piano returns midway through the song, as its mood shifts from soaring to tender. Then, as the final solo winds down, the piano appears once more, with cascading notes that are very reminiscent of the guitar part in the final moments of “Sultans.”

Bittan’s keyboards often serve this kind of threading and bookending function on the songs. They’re a perfect counterpoint to the opening riff on “Expresso Love”, fading more into the background after the drums start, but reappearing when the beat drops out in the middle, and returning to prominence once more as the song vamps and fades to its conclusion. In “Les Boys” it’s a rollicking music-hall piano that evokes the cabaret described in the lyrics. The piano is featured by itself for the introduction to “Hand In Hand”, a gorgeous and aching song from which Bittan wrings every drop of emotion, first alone, then accompanying the band, then entwining with the guitar at the end to lead into the final question mark.

As an example of excellent musicians, locked into each other, and playing at the top of their game, Making Movies is outstanding. But where it hits me straight in the heart is when that music brings to life the vivid romanticism of Mark Knopfler’s lyrics. I want to be clear that by “romanticism”, I don’t just mean Romeo-and-Juliet-style romance, though obviously that is present on this album, in fact literally so. I also mean that these songs exemplify many of the qualities associated with the artistic and literary Romantic movement: describing heightened experience, the veneration of the imagination and of powerful emotions, and a focus on the heroic individual, set into relief against a drab industrialized society.

That list is pretty much the Cliff Notes version of “Skateaway.” The heroine of the story lives in a setting of traffic, trucks, and taxis, all crawling along jammed city streets. She weaves fearlessly through these obstacles, an “urban toreador” who teases the taxi drivers and lets the trucks brush against her hip. And what elevates this heroic figure? Music and imagination. The music in her ears takes her mind into story — she’s “making movies, on location” as she transcends her mechanistic settings, finding her own world in the city, a purer one than ours.

“Les Boys” are heroic figures themselves, stepping beyond the prejudice that surrounds them into a place where they can feel “glad to be gay.” Even “Solid Rock”, as realistic and grounded as the lyrics want to be, is about the individual trusting in his inner feelings rather than the ephemeral illusions and projections of culture.

It’s romantic love, though, that occupies the bulk of the album, each statement standing brilliantly on its own and combining into an exhilarating whole. “Hand in Hand” mourns a complicated loss in progress, remembering a history together full of pain and yearning, but also full of passionate attachment. “Expresso Love” is the other side of the coin, the pure exaltation of desire, the idealization of the lover and the incredible rush of ecstasy that accompanies her presence. “Tunnel Of Love” brings them together — the carnival thrills of a new love, and the grimy souvenirs of love lost.

And then there’s “Romeo And Juliet.” This is an epic love song if there ever was one, and to try to describe it feels like an exercise in futility — I couldn’t capture a tenth of its luminous beauty. So I’ll just say a couple of things about what it means to me. I’ve felt like that lovestruck Romeo before, though I could never hope to muster the cool of “You and me babe, how about it?” And it’s one thing to want someone, but another thing entirely to find that though you may be perfect for her and she for you, the time is wrong, and no right time is coming. That is the piercing ache at the heart of this song, and its combined evocation of Shakespeare’s tragedy and of its more modern avatar West Side Story drives the knife deeper than a song alone could manage.

Romeo feels betrayed and abandoned, and can’t help but replay over and over again the scenes of passion in which he came to believe that love is forever, that promises of “thick and thin” couldn’t be broken. But Romeo is trapped in a tragedy, in which the most he can do is reach through the bars of a rhyme towards a Juliet now forever beyond his grasp.

I don’t feel like this now, and I haven’t felt this way in a long time. But as far back in the past as those feelings might be, they leave their scars, and hearing “Romeo and Juliet” takes me right back to that somewhere place. It’s time travel by music, and it’s so, so powerful, even thirty-odd years past 1985.

Album Assignments: Robbie Robertson

A while ago, I wrote about how I have trouble relating to a lot of The Band’s material. I like The Last Waltz well enough, the energy and the musicianship, but as far as the actual songs, I could never quite connect with tale after tale of down-and-out hillbillies. So when I approached Robbie Robertson’s first solo album in 1987, it wasn’t as a fan of his earlier work — it was as a fan of Peter Gabriel, U2, and BoDeans. Of the nine songs on this album, fully six of them feature one of those three artists, seven if you count instrumental as well as vocal contributions.

This, then, is the story of a producer. Daniel Lanois created some of the defining sounds of the 1980s by producing two of its most artistically and commercially successful albums: Peter Gabriel’s So and U2’s The Joshua Tree. He’d produce albums for U2 and Gabriel beforehand and afterwards, but those two were the peak, both for him and for the artists. His sonic landscape was huge, creating epic cathedrals of music with echoing bass and drums pushed way up in the mix, punctuated by searing guitars and sometimes bright horns as well.

Lanois produced two albums in 1987. One was The Joshua Tree, and the other was Robbie Robertson. He’d produced So the year before, and in fact a core of musicians from that album — Tony Levin on bass and Manu Katché on drums, as well as Lanois himself on various instruments and vocals — provide Robertson’s accompaniment here. Lanois’s signature sounds are all over this album, as are his signature artists, along with BoDeans, whom he never produced but who were the opening act on U2’s Joshua Tree tour.

Album cover for Robbie Robertson

The album opens with “Fallen Angel”, featuring a haunting vocal by Gabriel, and a keyboard part too. It’s a tribute to Robertson’s former Band-mate Richard Manuel, who had hanged himself in 1986. The song starts soft, building in power. Robertson’s vocal comes in wordlessly, hums that transition into high wails of anguish, slowly forming lyrics: “Are you out there? / Can you hear me? / Can you see me in the dark?” Once the verse begins, it’s clear that Robertson is not speaking in character, and that he’s writing far away from the Band mode. It’s a song of loss, with Robertson’s earthy tone complemented perfectly by multiple layers of Peter Gabriel’s ethereal voice intoning over and over, “Fallen angel… if my eyes can see…” It’s a fitting farewell to a lost soul who “felt too much.”

The grand mode continues in both of Robertson’s songs with U2. “Sweet Fire Of Love” was in fact co-written with the group, and is performed more or less as a duet with them. If it made the charts today, it’d probably be billed as “Robbie Robertson featuring U2”, or maybe just “Robbie Robertson and U2.” “Testimony,” too, features the entire band and a horn section to boot. In fact, now that I think about it, these two songs not only give us a whole new side of Robertson, they also document U2’s transition from its epic Joshua Tree mode to the more soul-oriented approach of Rattle & Hum. “Sweet Fire” sees them in spiritual/romantic fever, similar to “Where The Streets Have No Name” or “In God’s Country,” whereas the bluesier sound of “Testimony” hearkens forward to songs like “Angel Of Harlem” and “When Love Comes To Town.”

Then there are the BoDeans. Kurt Neumann and Sam Llanas have an electrifying vocal blend, and Lanois puts it to excellent use in the glorious “Showdown At Big Sky,” an impressionistic song about escalating war. Robertson sets the scene in the verse, but the chorus belongs to Kurt and Sammy, who take it to the skies musically, similar to the effect that Gabriel has in “Fallen Angel.” “American Roulette” doesn’t feature them quite so prominently, but once again they lend that special sound to the chorus, specifically the title. Robertson’s lyrics paint abstract portraits of James Dean, Elvis Presley, and Marilyn Monroe, but when it’s time to make his point, it’s BoDeans who do the underlining.

“Somewhere Down The Crazy River” is a little different. Rather than a CinemaScope war or tragedy, “Crazy River” is more like a southern noir. Robertson speaks the verses rather than singing them, making the whole thing feel like an unsettling session with a grizzled old storyteller, who may himself be a little crazy. He sings the chorus, and that’s where Sam Llanas comes in. Llanas has a raspy vocal tone, and the way he matches with Neumann’s much smoother voice is the key to what makes the BoDeans’ harmonies special, somewhat analogous to Ray and Saliers (respectively) of the Indigo Girls. But Llanas by himself is pure grit, and he turns that dial up to 11 as he echoes the title behind the chorus. Where the other guest spots provide a counterpoint to Robertson’s tone, Llanas in this one takes that tone even further in the direction it was already going.

The final guest star song is “Broken Arrow”, to which Peter Gabriel contributes keyboards and drum programming. Because the contribution is instrumental, it feels far more like a pure Robertson song, and in fact is probably the best known song on the album, thanks to Rod Stewart’s cover making the top 20 in 1991. It’s a sweet song, with some lovely lines: “Do you feel what I feel? / Can we make that so it’s part of the deal? / I’ve gotta hold you in these arms of steel / Lay your heart on the line / I want to breathe when you breathe.”

Probably my favorite song from this assignment, though, is one with no guest stars at all: “Hell’s Half-Acre.” Search Google for this term and you’ll find a strange geological formation in Wyoming, as well as an obscure 1954 noir film whose title refers to a Honolulu slum district. Read the lyrics of this song, though, and I think you’ll agree it’s pretty clear that the reference here is to Vietnam.

The lyrics tell the story of a young Native American man from the Black Hills of South Dakota, drafted to fight a “rumble in the jungle.” Robertson’s melody and Lanois’s arrangement perfectly convey the danger and intensity of his situation, and the story they tell has no happy ending — “She said, you’ve changed, you’re not the same / Clouds of napalm and the opium / The damage was already done.” Robertson’s vocal is as fierce as he gets, and the result is devastating. For all the support he gets on this album, “Hell’s Half Acre” shows that Robbie Robertson was plenty strong standing on his own.

Album Assignments: Empty Glass

There are lots of reasons people make solo albums. Sometimes it signals the next phase of an artist’s career after their band’s final creative demise, as with Sting, or Paul McCartney, or Paul Simon. Some artists produce far more material than their band can accommodate, such as Stevie Nicks, or Amy Ray, or Phil Collins. Sometimes they’re really just side projects — Stephin Merritt, Thom Yorke, and Mick Fleetwood come to mind. But some solo albums demand to be made, and such was the case with Pete Townshend’s Empty Glass.

Townshend had been writing for The Who since 1964, a songwriting career of relentless innovation and spectacular success. But by 1980, that career and indeed his whole life was foundering on a variety of shoals and reefs. He was struggling with a substance abuse habit, including alcohol and heroin. His 12-year marriage was coming apart. Punk rock had exploded in Britain, creating a culture that cast Townshend and The Who in the uncomfortable role of Establishment dinosaurs. The last Who album, Who Are You, had been a commercial success but was difficult to record, and had received mixed reviews. During the Who Are You tour, 11 fans died in a crowd crush due to festival seating arrangements in Cincinnati. And Keith Moon was dead, claimed by an overdose on the sedative he’d been prescribed for his alcohol withdrawal symptoms.

The songs on Empty Glass give us a look into Townshend’s anguish over these issues, sometimes obliquely and sometimes with startling directness. But even more than that, they show an artist freed from a musical framework that had come to constrict him more and more over the years. The Who is a phenomenal band, obviously, and for many years they had served as Townshend’s creative outlet, but The Who has its limitations. Chief among these is Roger Daltrey as a frontman, and I say that with full respect to Daltrey’s sensational stage presence and potent singing voice. Daltrey is many things, but one thing he isn’t is uncertain – he has a clear “golden god” image, and extends that image to the band in general with swagger and machismo.

Empty Glass album cover

But Townshend’s new songs, though some of them were firmly in the Who idiom on a musical level, were not necessarily a good match with Daltrey. The album’s opening track “Rough Boys” is a perfect example. Musically, it could easily be a Who song. Lyrically, it starts out that way too: “Tough boys / Running the streets”. That’s an image that would have been at home on Quadrophenia or Who’s Next. But the song quickly takes an unexpected turn — “Rough toys / Under the sheets”. Okay, so now we’re talking about rough sex, but even that’s not so beyond the pale. Here’s what’s next, though: “Rough boys / Don’t walk away / I very nearly missed you / Tough boys / Come over here / I wanna bite and kiss you”.

Whoa! So, hey, it turns out maybe the rough sex is with the boys themselves! And the homoerotic tone gets clearer and clearer: “I wanna see what I can find”… “Gonna get inside you”… “I wanna buy you leather”… “We can’t be seen together”. And just in case that’s not transparent enough, Townshend also gives us “And I Moved,” an unmistakable portrait of a tender erotic encounter with a man, whose “hands felt like ice exciting / As he laid me back just like an empty dress.”

Now is probably a good time to say that yes, of course, Pete’s not necessarily writing about himself, and in fact is more prone to write in character than most rock songwriters. And yes, it’s true that “And I Moved” was originally written for Bette Midler, though that doesn’t change the fact that he still chose to sing it himself, without changing the gender. In any case, can we really picture Daltrey singing these songs, at least in the way they’re presented here? It was daring enough in 1980 for Townshend to put them forward, and what they express was not in the Who’s iconic vocabulary, at least not at that time.

Empty Glass is full of one thing, and that is multiplicity, more than The Who could have contained. Nowhere is that clearer than on the astonishing “I Am An Animal.” Most of the song is sung in Pete’s “sweet” register — think the “don’t cry” bridge from “Baba O’Riley”. Townshend’s voice is very different from Daltrey’s, but for me it has a magic all its own, tough and tender at the same time. Parts of the song are sung almost in a hush, like a lone choirboy practicing in a cathedral.

The words put forth a series of bold, contradictory metaphors: “I am an animal / My teeth are sharp and my mouth is full”… “I am a vegetable / I get my body badly pulled.” “I am a human being / And I don’t believe all the things I’m seeing”… “I am an angel / I booked in here, I came straight from hell.” In one moment, he’s proclaiming himself “queen of the fucking universe”, and almost immediately afterwards, “I am a nothing king.”

It all returns to the chorus, in which the speaker is lost in a timeless present moment, without history or future, where he’s being carried along into the unknown, accompanied by all these versions of himself:

I’m looking back
And I can’t see the past anymore, so hazy
I’m on a track and I’m traveling so fast
Oh for sure, I’m crazy

According to Townshend, the song “Empty Glass” is based on 14th century Sufi poem, in which the heart is an empty cup filled up with God’s love. And that certainly fits the words, but I would suggest that in another sense, the empty glass of this album is Townshend himself, so long a vehicle through which another voice expressed itself. When he stepped out of that structure, he found himself filled with beautiful multitudes, some complementary, some oppositional.

He is lost, yes, and desperately seeking — “I’m losing my way”… “I’m boozing to pray”. Some lines seem to speak clearly to his troubled relationship — “I don’t know what I have anymore / Anymore than you do”… “I don’t know where you are anymore / I’ve got no clue.” As another great songwriter once put it, pain is all around.

But at the same time, love is all around too. Empty Glass contains two of the greatest love songs Townshend ever wrote: “Let My Love Open The Door” and “A Little Is Enough.” Both of them are open-ended enough to encompass many kinds of love — romantic, agape, divine. Both have a spiritual component, reaching toward a kind of devotion that is generous, open, and focused outward. And both are musically ecstatic, locating an elevated bliss in the declaration of passionate attachment.

Pain and love sit side by side most manifestly in “Jools and Jim”. Fundamentally, this is a furious song, striking out vehemently at a poison pen of the British press named Julie Burchill, who had recently co-written a book-length rant about rock and punk called The Boy Looked At Johnny with her future husband Tony Parsons. In a promotional interview for their book, they had slagged off Keith Moon, saying “we’re better off without him.” Townshend lets them have it with both barrels, spitting out line after line of rebuke: “Typewriter bangers on / You’re all just hangers-on”… “You listen to love with your intellect”… “Your hearts are melting in pools of gin”… “Morality ain’t measured in a room he wrecked.”… “They have a standard of perfection there / That you and me can never share”.

But in a remarkable bridge, Townshend admits his own complicity, and allows for the possibility of connection even with such enemies:

But I know for sure if we met up eye to eye
A little wine would bring us closer, you and I
Cause you’re right, hypocrisy will be the death of me
And there’s an I before e when you’re spelling ecstasy
And you, you too…

Immediately afterward, he invokes Krishna, and says it was “for you that Jesus’ blood was shed.” He finds forgiveness in his heart even for those who have stabbed it. He doesn’t let them off the hook — the “you too” attaches to the statement about hypocrisy in my reading — but he believes “for sure” that they could connect if they met on a human level. We don’t see this sort of stance taken very often in rock and roll, do we? Townshend blends rebellion and humility, anger and contrition into something more potent than either.

It’s clear that in part, Empty Glass was a reaction to punk rock. He dedicates “Rough Boys” to both his children and to the Sex Pistols. “I am an animal” not only echoes the Pistols’ “I am an antichrist / I am an anarchist”, it replies back to their song “Bodies”, in which the chorus cries, “I’m not an animal!” But where punk culminates in blistering anger, for Townshend that’s merely a starting point, on a road that ends in an open door.

Put On Some Silver

Because I’m sending these year-end CDs to Wales, my listening year runs November to October, giving me time to assemble and mail a mix in time for Christmas. This year, that meant I’d done most of the assembly work during the first week of November. Shortly after that, you may or may not have heard, the United States held a presidential election. It was a pretty low-key affair — only about 55% of us actually bothered to vote. What’s more, we have this quirky system that gives more power per voter to rural (ahem, whiter) areas of the country than to more diverse urban areas, a system we’ve decided to reinforce by drawing super-crazy boundaries around congressional districts in order to keep them as ideologically homogeneous as possible.

Anyway, when faced with a choice between the most dangerous and least qualified major party nominee, like, ever, and a woman with decades of political experience and a clear, proven track record of working to help vulnerable people with compassionate policies, we of course chose the qualified woman. That is to say, more people voted for her. Like, a couple million more. But, funny thing, she’s not actually going to get to become president, because the couple million extra people who voted for her live in the wrong states. Did I mention we have a quirky system?

Anyway, for people like me who were rooting for the qualified woman to not only win the most votes but also to get elected president, it’s been kind of an emotional time. You know how after you go through a big breakup or suffer some kind of major loss, every single song that comes on the radio seems to gain this halo of extra resonance, to get freighted with a bunch of additional meaning so that it turns out all those songs are about EXACTLY WHAT YOU’RE SUFFERING, who knew? Listening to music was kind of like that for a few weeks in November.

That experience seems to have permanently infiltrated my experience of making this mix, and thus of listening to these songs. So it’s possible these liner notes may feel a bit repetitive for that reason. Oh, and also for the reason that a bunch of these songs have already been written about in the context of my ongoing album assignments project. All those messy caveats aside, here’s a mix of songs I was listening to in 2016, and a few thoughts about each one.

1. Taylor SwiftClean
This was the year I got around to 1989. The Taylor Swift album, I mean. I’d never been drawn to her stuff too much previously, though she did always seem to me like the real thing, a talented singer-songwriter who was committed to a musical life, rather than being a video pop tart. But the country idiom isn’t a natural one for me, so I never sought her out until I heard the infectious and addictive “Shake It Off.” (And stay tuned for that one.) A few singles into this album and I knew it was for me. I wasn’t wrong, either — I love the whole thing, and this track is especially compelling to me. It’s a collaboration between TS and Imogen Heap, who herself vaulted onto my list after this. Her album is on the docket for next year. “Clean” is a relationship song, clearly, but heard in the November context it was how I was hoping to feel on the 9th. That didn’t work out.

2. Jefferson AirplaneEmbryonic Journey
As I wrote in my review of Surrealistic Pillow, I think this is my favorite rock instrumental of all time. I find it absolutely transcendent, in a way that defies encapsulation in language. Maybe that’s part of the definition of “transcendent.”

3. Joni MitchellCarey
Blue was an assigned album this year, and listening to it I was struck anew at just how gorgeous it is. Every note sounds so pure and right. Every song feels on par with all the others, so picking a song from it was a bit arbitrary. “Carey”, though, feels emblematic of the album, musically joyful and lyrically both aching and celebratory. I love the bohemian images, and the feel of reveling in the sweetness of life just as we still revel in the sweetness of this album. The lyric “put on some silver” makes me think of making the choice to embrace life and happiness even in dark times. It seemed a fitting title for this collection.

4. Fountains Of WayneAction Hero
After getting to know FoW last year, I dove deeper this year, branching into some other albums, including their (presumably final) entry from 2011, Sky Full Of Holes. It’s a typically great collection, but for me this song stands above most of the rest. There’s the usual lyrical cleverness, stringing together rhyme chains like “tests”, “chest”, “best”, “guess”, “rest”, and “stress”, with an internal rhyme of “suggest” thrown in there as a flourish. But the moment that gives me goosebumps everytime is after the second chorus, when the music swells underneath “and he’s racing against time.” Where the action hero metaphor starts out comical, with the man serving as a bit of a punchline, by the end of the second chorus his true heroism reveals itself to us, reflecting upon us the way we’re all racing against time.

5. The LumineersSubmarines
On a musical level, I find this song hypnotic. The way it switches time signatures back and forth keeps me wonderfully off-balance, and the mix of instrumental voices is a pleasure — strong piano, subtle cello, stomps and snares for percussion. Lyrically, it’s about seeing a danger coming that nobody else believes. I can imagine there were a few who could relate to that feeling recently. I wasn’t one of them, though — I’m not sure whether I wish I’d seen it coming or not. That’s a bit like the old philosophical question about knowing the time and manner of your own death.

6. The MotelsSuddenly Last Summer
I think The Motels are one of the most underrated bands of the 1980s. I love Martha Davis’ voice, and her writing often has a mysterious, evocative quality, hinting at truths greater than the words can capture. This song is a perfect example — I’m not sure exactly what it’s about, but you can’t miss the the yearning, regret, and pain in the music. It always makes me think of how some incident can change your life completely in an instant, branching you into a future very different from the one you expected. For me, the words “one summer never ends, one summer never begins” are about that inflection point.

7. Bob DylanPositively 4th Street
I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan this year. The subtitle of this mix may as well be “Hope Ya Like Dylan!” He’ll be showing up frequently in this list. This song is one of the best kiss-off tunes of all time. In Dylan’s context, I think it’s about the false friends he had in the Greenwich Village folk community, people who pretended to love him but were in fact jealous of his success and ready to undermine him at any turn. (At least, from his perception — no doubt there are many sides to that story.) In the 2016 context, it’s about seeing through bullshit, something we’ve all had to become well acquainted with.

8. Peter GabrielLovetown
Here’s a little-known Peter Gabriel track, from the soundtrack to the 1993 movie Philadelphia. Like many of the soundtrack’s songs, it’s an interpretation of the tone of the movie — a complement to Neil Young’s “city of brotherly love, don’t turn your back on me,” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Oh brother are you gonna leave me wastin’ away on the streets of Philadelphia?” Gabriel’s song is more subtle, more translucent than transparent. But that’s where I think its power resides. It brims with powerful images, like “do those teeth still match the wound” and the corresponding “whose lonely lips will find these hidden scars?” I listened to that soundtrack this year, and even though I love most of the other songs on it, this one felt the richest and the deepest to me.

9. The Velvet Underground & NicoVenus In Furs
As I wrote, this is the song that captivated me most when I listened to the VU’s debut album on assignment this year. It illuminates an unusual relationship to suffering — pain as release, pain as freedom, pain as comfort. It’s not my path — as Armatrading said, “It’s their way of loving, not mine.” But I’ve learned about it from friends, and come to see it as another aspect of diversity, and possibly even a different approach to the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. It’s a brilliant purple candle flame in a darkened room, casting weird shadows on the wall but nevertheless an irresistible cynosure.

10. Bob DylanUp To Me
Oh, “Up To Me.” The way these mixes come about is that as I go through the year of music listening, I keep throwing standout tracks into a playlist, and then I pick from that group when November comes around. There are always more songs than would fit on a single CD, so some culling is necessary, and that’s all to the good. Some songs, though, I mark as sure keepers, that will make the mix no matter what else doesn’t. This is one of those songs. I found it on the third disc of Dylan’s 1985 box set Biograph. I listen to music mostly during my commute, and when a song particularly catches my interest, I repeat it. And when it obsesses me, I repeat it until I’ve learned it. That’s what happened to me with this song, which is every bit as good as anything from Blood On The Tracks, one of my favorite Dylan incarnations. It feels like an epic novel to me, but condensed down into a series of scenes that indelibly carve the runes of friendship, regret, responsibility, loyalty, and memory.

11. Stevie NicksSisters Of The Moon (demo)
There was a period, probably about a decade ago, where conditions in my life and conditions on the Internet were ripe for gathering lots and lots of Stevie bootlegs. People had web sites up where they’d feature some collection of mp3s for a week, then take those down and put up a whole new set, week after week, site after site. Some of this stuff gets pretty repetitive — how many fan-taped shows from the 2002-03 Fleetwood Mac tour does one person need? (Answer: a combination of “the best quality one” and “the one from early in the tour where they hadn’t dropped the rare songs yet.”) But there’s one collection that stands as my favorite. It was labeled “Gems” by whoever put it up, and the description is apt. It’s piano demos, mostly young Stevie singing by herself, accompanying herself, doing versions of her songs from when they were freshly written. Of that collection, this one is my favorite, an acoustic “Sisters Of The Moon” before it became a Fleetwood Mac powerhouse, when it was just a spooky, hushed, mystical gauze draped over a Tiffany lamp.

12. Buckingham NicksCrying In The Night
When I saw her on October 27th, Stevie’s set was full of surprises, but none more surprising than this one. This is the opening track from the Buckingham Nicks album, the one she and Lindsey released before they were invited to join Fleetwood Mac. This album isn’t even available to buy — it’s been out of print since a few months after it was released in 1973, and has never even come out on CD. (At least, not in a version released by any record company.) I never, ever expected to hear it live, and it was a huge thrill. Maybe that means we’ll see a disc one of these years? We keep hoping.

13. The PretendersStop Your Sobbing
Yes, The Pretenders and Stevie Nicks are side by side in this mix because they were side by side in concert. And yes, pairing “Crying In The Night” with “Stop Your Sobbing” was no accident. But I’d likely select this song even without the thematic connection, because Chrissie’s performance on it was her fiercest of the night. Yeah, it’s a Kinks cover, but for me this is a Pretenders song through and through, and one of the best. This month, it also represents what to do next.

14. The PoliceTruth Hits Everybody
Now here’s a song that resonated in November. I’d just assigned Outlandos d’Amour the month before, and rediscovered the furious allure of The Police as a young band, especially Stewart Copeland. Now, listening back to the music I’d selected from the year, this song jumped out at me and took me by the throat. Reality has seldom felt so merciless.

15. Bob DylanTombstone Blues
Here’s another version of merciless truth, one flooded with metaphor and cloaked in symbol, but the chorus is pretty plainspoken: “Mama’s in the factory, she ain’t got no shoes / Daddy’s in the alley, he’s looking for food / I am in the kitchen with the tombstone blues.” Sure, there’s Belle Starr and John the Baptist and Galileo and Gypsy Davey and on and on, but at its heart this song is about poverty, desperation, and death. It turns out those are powerful forces that, in a democracy, can be harnessed and pointed at a target. Sometimes, the target is even the people themselves, though they only find that out later.

16. Jenny Lewis with the Watson TwinsThe Big Guns
The commander-in-chief says, “Death to all those who would whimper and cry.” Okay, I’m still on the previous song, but it connects right up. This Jenny Lewis solo album is much closer to the parts of Rilo Kiley that I love than was the actual last Rilo Kiley album. This track was a standout when I listened to it months ago, but it really jumped up when I was putting the mix together. “I’ll pretend that everybody here wants peace / Have mercy, have mercy, have mercy on me / Cause we’re tired and lonely and we’re bloody.” Some people just love the big guns, and we’re going to be hearing a lot more from them soon. Not that the last 8 years were some peaceful haven — we’re still in some kind of 1984 state of constant war — but it was directionally correct, and we’re about to lose that, I think.

17. HeartGoodbye Blue Sky (live)
Which leads right into this. I think it’s very hard to cover Pink Floyd successfully — I’ve not even heard that many people try. But I absolutely adore this version of “Goodbye Blue Sky.” It comes from a Heart live album in which they play the entirety of Dreamboat Annie, and then go on to cover some of the other people’s songs they loved from that period. The original of this is fantastically sinister, but the Ann Wilson treatment just launches it into the stratosphere, no unsettling reference intended. The incredible sense of menace and power fit my November mood perfectly.

18. ColdplayAmsterdam
The turning point. This song captivated me when I listened to A Rush Of Blood To The Head on assignment. I connected with it emotionally far more than any other song on the album. To me, this song is about being in the deep well of despair, for a time that feels it will stretch into eternity, and then finally seeing a shaft of sunlight break through. Right at 3:57, the song absolutely takes off, and the feeling changes from hopelessness to freedom. I’ve been through this once already. In 2004, I gave up on us in disgust, only to witness what felt like a miracle in 2008. This time, I’m not giving up — we just have to keep climbing until we get to that sunlight.

19. Bob DylanThe Times They Are A-Changin’
This song was first played on October 26, 1963. Less than a month later, and before the song was released on an album, John F. Kennedy was assassinated, giving the clarion words an entirely different cast. Yet when we hear it now, it signals all the good changes that came out of that painful decade. The words, though, can play either as hopeful or foreboding, or maybe both at the same time. “The battle outside ragin’ / Will soon shake your windows and rattle your walls.” That’s where we are. But the change doesn’t stop, and we can be a part of it.

20. Taylor SwiftShake It Off
So here we are. I started with a wish to be clean, but it’s a dirty time that lies ahead. But I can’t stay mud-encrusted. As much as I can, I have to rise above, and the only way I know to do that is to connect with human joy. This song crystallizes that for me. Haters gonna hate, and that’s not something we can change. What can we do? Shake, shake, shake it off. 🙂 And look forward to 2017, despite everything.

Happy New Year.