Sunday, August 30, 2009
I did pony up $50 for that marginal piece of equipment. It's the homeliest, lowest-frill device I've ever laid eyes on, but it's given me reason to liberate my gorgeous LPs from their dusty cardboard prisons and, for that reason alone, I love this
These days, a lot of people don't quite get the point of a record player. And admittedly, much as I've always loved vinyl, my last turntable died about six years ago, so I'd kind of forgotten, too. But as I started playing LPs on my new Ion Audio USB device, I immediately recalled how much better it feels to play a record. It's not just that the sound is warmer. There's something reassuring about glancing across the room and seeing the record spin. (Like when you watch someone perform live, the idea that you can see something happening for you is kind of cool.) The format pretty much forces you to appreciate the sequence of the songs, which generally were arranged as they were for good reason. And if you're so inclined, you can even pick up the disc and examine the grooves of your favorite tracks. To me, all this is immeasurably superior to handling a plastic disc or, worse, an electronic file.
Then of course, there's the cover art. In these modern times, there's almost no point to cover art, but back in the day, man, was that a big part of buying a record. You tend to forget that until you actually look at those 12-inch beauties again. Recently, I was reading a reminiscence by a Bosnian War survivor about her fondness for Michael Jackson; while reviewing her blog entry, I couldn't help but covet the "Bad" vinyl in the accompanying photo. I never even thought of that as great cover art, but now I'm on a quest to find a copy of my own.
Along these lines, I've been having a rather frustrating time trying to find the album with my favorite cover shot of all time: Sade's "Love Deluxe." I mentioned this to my friend Scott the other day, and he said something along the lines of, "the one of Sade naked?" Typical guy response. Yes, she's naked! But that's not what makes it great cover art: First, I love the colors of the photo; she's so dark — darker than she is in reality — which looks really striking against the white background. Plus, the way the light hits her suggests that she's basking in something warm or amazing. That sense is heightened by her posture, which to me indicates not just bliss, but also dreaminess, and a sort of unapologetic romance that is totally backed up by the fantastic music on the album.
Unfortunately, the record is not so easy to find, and it tends to be pricey. I recently saw a "near mint" version on Discogs for something like 45 euros, a bit high for me. A better deal cropped up on eBay, and let me tell you I was sure I was going to win that auction. For days, no one seemed interested in countering my bid of 20 pounds, but at the last minute the album slipped through my fingers as I obliviously surfed the web. Worse, I had to suffer, as my co-worker Jackie would say, the "indignity" of seeing I lost by only a minuscule amount.
Of course, a slight disadvantage of records is their breakability. I have a dog who's fond of tossing her toys into the air and, about a week after I set up the Ion record player, my "1999" single almost met a cruel end. Right as the Purple One was really getting into the whole "I'd rather dance my life away" bit, my dog's much-chewed stuffed duck was flung through the stratosphere of my living room with great force, crash-landing on the vinyl but skidding off harmlessly, thank God. My dog was even able to fish the duck out from behind the sound system quickly and with no help from me, so it all ended well.
As for the turntable itself, it has some shortcomings. The Ion player is the only one I've ever had whose arm doesn't automatically return when it reaches the end of the disc. You actually have to get up and go lift the arm off the record — kind of a pain. The device didn't come with a cover either. But, you know, given the low $50 price tag, I can't complain too much. The mp3 conversion process is pretty easy too, though I wish the player had come with a longer USB cable.
The actual recording process is surprisingly nostalgic, in a slightly frustrating way. I'd almost forgotten about the stress of trying to make sure you hit the record button at just the right time, or realizing you'd overlooked a bit of stylus-tripping dust on the record. Ah, the hours I spent making tapes — agonizing both over the recording itself and the lettering on the labels. Those were the days.
In any event, it's definitely cool knowing I won't have to go out and re-buy some of my obscure (and in some cases slightly embarrassing) '70s and '80s tunes; with this device I can easily load such treasures as Kiss's "Shout It Out Loud," and the Cybill Shepherd/Maddie Hayes rendition of "Blue Moon" right onto my iPod for hours of enjoyment at my gym and elsewhere. But the greatest enjoyment will be here at home, where I can carefully wipe the dust off those luscious discs, lower the needle, and revel in the sounds of snaps and pops.
And though many people don't understand the allure, it's fun to bump into those who do. The other day I picked up the jazz classic "A Love Supreme" before proceeding to Shaw's for groceries. At Shaw's, the guy behind the fish counter queried me on my Newbury Comics shopping bag and, when I told him what it contained, he was enthusiastic. "Nothing sounds better than vinyl," he said, with great conviction, as he handed me my wild-salmon fillets. "Enjoy those with your John Coltrane." I certainly did.
Friday, August 28, 2009
I paused and briefly wondered what he meant. I sometimes go for lunch or after-work drinks with a small group that includes a Mike, but I didn't think Jamie knew all their names. "Jamie, what are you talking about?" I said.
He responded, "You've usually got your iPod and you're listening to Mike."
Whoa. I would never have guessed that my iPod is sometimes cranked so loudly that others can enjoy the sounds of "Thriller," "Off the Wall," and, of course, "The Essential Jacksons." Not that that's all I listen to!
"You can HEAR my iPod?" I queried.
He assured me that it's not that loud — he can only hear it when he's the one checking our security badges. (I guess it's good to know the staff behind the security desk 30 feet away can't hear it.) As he explained, occasionally when badge-checking me, he thinks, "Wait a minute, I know that song!'"
Well, the iPod was expensive; I guess it's somewhat fitting it's not just me who gets to enjoy it. Shamone, Jamie!
Friday, August 21, 2009
This technique was apparently more successful than I at first realized, because I was surprised when my co-worker Jon wandered into my cube and said, "Sasha, am I going to have to do my Shelley Winters impression and swim across the lobby?" Apparently, by this point they were evacuating the first 10 floors of the building (but still not ours).
We both had a good laugh, but only about 45 minutes later we would discover that he was slightly more on target than we had at first guessed. The whole building was evacuated, which meant that a few thousand of us were forced to descend many tens of flights inside a hot, dark stairwell. On the way down, we tiptoed through murky brown water and had another chuckle at Shelley Winters' expense (after rounding a corner and seeing a big red crank like the one she so valiantly turned in that modern film classic — you know you know which one I'm talking about!).
The stop-and-go foot traffic was significantly slower and more claustrophobic from what I recall of the one fire drill I participated in a year ago in this tower. And with so many people crammed into the stairwell, Jon, I and our co-worker Camille were somehow separated from the rest of our group. Finally, after about 30 minutes of descent, the three of us were liberated into the sauna-like atmosphere of the Christian Science Plaza, where clusters of frustrated office workers made calls and worried about how they'd get their cars out, while others planned leisurely afternoons. We went to our company's rendezvous point but were unsuccessful in locating anyone we knew. I can only assume that they all wound up at the Pour House.
Myself, I was rather tempted to join the kids playing in the fountain, but I headed home instead, where I settled for ice cream, AC, and the joys of the remote workplace.
Tuesday, August 18, 2009
As quickly as I could, I grabbed my wallet and high-tailed it to a nearby market that I know to carry very strong, good coffee. Sadly, I was confronted with this sign.
This winter-oriented sign is "sad" because its display could almost not be a careless oversight, given that summer didn't start here in Boston until about five minutes ago. And I have the wind-ravaged umbrellas and destroyed jeans to prove it.
Also sad because it was 7:45 a.m. and I had to trek further for my joe....
Monday, August 17, 2009
Today I am taking this sidebar down, but I thought it would be a good idea to embed the links in this post so that I (and my thousands of readers, of course!) can still have them for easy reference.
- Album reviews (Los Angeles Times) — This LA Times blog item is a convenient reference of contemporary reviews of MJ's solo albums. I don't agree with all of them, but it's kind of cool to look back and see a sampling of what the Times' critics thought of these works at the times they were released.
- "Bad" concert review (Guardian) — I loved this 1988 review by John Peel of a stop on the "Bad" tour. He conveys a sense both of the quality of the show and the texture of the event.
- "Off the Wall" retrospective (New York Times) — This was an editorial board item (the only one I saw on MJ in the Times) published the day after he died. It's a nice spare review of the album, one that emphasizes the great departure the record marked from MJ's previous works.
- On "Off the Wall," "Thriller" (Wall Street Journal) — This piece describes the amazing collaboration that went on in support of these two albums. My only gripe is that I thought the author de-emphasized MJ's role as songwriter of some key songs. Still, an interesting look back. Minor warning: Journal stories are dreadfully slow to load. Thank you, Rupert Murdoch.
- Tina Brown's recollections (NPR) — This is a short interview, but a good one. She recounts the "bicycle" story about Billie Jean (he was riding a bike when he came up with the bass line). I'd read that before quite a long time ago, but I'd never seen it repeated or been able to find it online until now.
- "Remembering Michael: Help me sing it" (AllAboutJazz.com) — I stumbled across this piece by accident while googling the lyric "Help me sing it," which I was thinking of using (and did use) as the title of one of my own blog entries. The author of this well-written tribute says, "His celebrity seemed a miserable burden, and no small number of critics jeered while he carried it." It's so true.
- Robert Hillburn on MJ's loneliness (Los Angeles Times) — This is one of the most depressing things I've ever read. Hillburn, the Times' long-time pop music critic, talks about meeting Michael when he was 11, then again 12 years later, by which time all happiness and confidence seemed gone from the singer.
- Wesley Morris on MJ's changing appearance (Boston Globe) — This piece offers a look at how African-Americans viewed Michael's radical reworking of his physical self. I'm not black, so I can't speak to the accuracy of the article, but I thought it was really interesting and well-written.
- Lisa Marie Presley's blog — In the first few days after Michael's death, most major publications were quoting this post by Lisa Marie. The excerpts were painful, and the full text of the entry is even more so. Anyone who thinks that MJ and Lisa Marie weren't a real couple might think twice after reading this anguished account, parts of which may sound familiar to those who have been hung up on an emotionally unavailable guy at one time or another.
- "Life in the Magical Kingdom" (Rolling Stone) — This 1983 interview with MJ describes the disparity between the man and the performer. Sadly, this online version does not include an intro that appeared in a recent RS re-print. In that intro, the writer described MJ as a "touchingly inept" host who refilled her empty lemonade glass with warm Hawaiian Punch.
Note: The title of this post was ruthlessly stolen from David Gallen's fantastic book by the same name on Malcolm X. No comparison between Michael and Malcolm is intended; I just liked the phrase and hope that Mr. Gallen would not object to my borrowing it.
Friday, August 14, 2009
Our outting — at Stephi's, a moderate-to-upscale spot in the South End — lasted approximately two hours and my share, with tip, was roughly $80. That's nearly 70 cents a minute! And it got me thinking about this expensive city life.
Certainly you can go out in Boston for less. Just last night, I met up with some people for a modestly priced evening that included cheap drinks and snacks at a Back Bay watering hole followed by even cheaper ones at the ultra-divey Tam in Chinatown. The cost of that outting was probably closer to $12 an hour, much more reasonable. Of course, there was no lobster pie.
So, cheap outtings are possible, but living and working in the Back Bay area thrusts many temptations in one's face.
The retail alone can be enticing. My walk to work sometimes takes me through the Copley mall, and occasionally I and my co-worker/neighbor Jon do a little window shopping on our way out, or during our lunch break. Last week, while pausing at the Karen Millen window, we spied a beautiful almond-and-black trench coat.Jon guessed that it cost $285. I guessed $400, putting me much closer to the actual price of $425. Still, Jon teased that I should buy it. "Come on Sasha," he said. "It's only five dinners at Stephi's!"
Working so close to this mall is interesting. Luckily, everything is so expensive that I'm usually not truly tempted to buy anything. Copley has a Louis Vuitton, a Coach, an Armani — so, you know, very high-end stuff. I often pass the Tiffany & Co. right as they are starting to open for the day, and it's funny because there's usually a small group of people clustered around the giant gray fortress-like doors, waiting for them to creak open and reveal the store's bowels. These people obviously work there, but I think it's fun to imagine that they are privileged Bostonians who just can't wait to start buying jewels.
About a quarter mile from this spot, I did discover quite a bargain recently. On a whim last spring I decided to go to the symphony and found out about a promotion that offered $20 tickets to people under 40. The idea behind the campaign was to start getting young people interested in classical music before all of the orchestra's patrons, you know, die. This was actually a really great deal. The Boston Symphony Orchestra is one of the best in the world, and Symphony Hall is one of the most beautiful buildings in Boston — it's a great way to spend an evening. Normal pricing for the tickets is generally between $30 and $125, and these $20 tickets sometimes included very good seats that must have been on the expensive side of that range. I went several times and was quite sad when the season ended. Of course, because the tickets were so cheap, I went much more frequently than I would have otherwise and so in the end probably didn't save any money, but it was really fun! There's no word yet on whether the BSO will offer this program again next season, sadly.
Tempting, yet while walking through Crate & Barrel at lunchtime today, I wondered if I should try to target more of my spending toward my apartment. On the store's third floor, I spotted the perfect easy chair for my living room. It only costs 15 dinners at Stephi's.
As I contemplate all of these possible expenditures, I'm reminded of lyrics by the great Stevie Wonder, from his song "I Wish."
Even though we sometimes
Would not get a thing
We were happy with the
Joy the day would bring
Listening to this song the other day, I wondered, Should I try to be more like this? Of course, when I googled the lyrics just now, I realized that Stevie also says:
Mama gives you money for Sunday school
You trade yours for candy after church is through
Hmmm. Now, this is a little more like it! Though I would have also skipped church.
Saturday, August 8, 2009
Still, there's one song for which I have a particular affection. I'm not sure I can explain why, because there's no big dramatic story, but I'll try.
We moved around a lot when I was a kid, because my dad was in the Air Force. I usually adapted pretty well, but one move was kind of overwhelming — when we went from Spain, where we'd been for four years, to a small town in Oklahoma. I had just turned 13 when we came stateside, and I didn't know what to make of anything. I really missed my old life. I'd loved the Spanish architecture, the Spanish countryside, and the Spanish food. Moreover, the military community had been inclusive and welcoming. We'd had a nice house with a backyard, from which I rode my bike all over. We hadn't had things like current American TV, so we'd apparently missed a few cultural phenomena including "Who shot J.R.?," but I was
fine with that.
By contrast, Oklahoma seemed small, and the people in our town homo-
goneous. It felt like we were the only new ones, and for some reason we lived in an apartment with no windows. It's hard to believe now that the fire codes allowed that, but apparently they did. The apartment had two bedrooms, a living room, and a kitchen, all weirdly dark. We took to clustering around the TV.
Life outside the apartment wasn't so hot, either. I thought the area was desolate, and I missed my friends. It didn't get better when my mother took me to register at the middle school. I remember that weekday afternoon quite clearly; she and the assistant principal got into a long, boring conversation that didn't grab my attention until my mother asked when I should start class. My brain desperately screamed "not today," while the administrator said, "Might as well jump right in." I was reluctantly led to a classroom.
I never fit in at the school. I thought the other kids were cliquey, and I was horrified to find that the Oklahomans were way ahead of me in math.
My fondest memories of the first few weeks are of holing up in my room, writing in my journal, and occasionally walking to the Arby's next door. And of course, visiting the record store. Back then, I listened to ELO, Billy Joel, and the Beatles, along with a healthy smattering of Eighties froth. I had a wonderful stereo, a Christmas gift from the year before that had been carefully selected for me by my dad. It was a silver mini-component set. Most of the components were Fisher, but the piece that sat on the bottom was a little Pioneer turntable. You just pushed a button and the turntable slid out magically from its enclave below the tuner.
We hadn't been there long when the 20-something daughter of family friends left her home a couple of states away to come stay with us for a while. I liked Sarah, though she made me self-conscious. She was self-assured and beautiful, whereas I was clumsy and wore glasses. I remember watching some sort of music show with her on TV, and talking about which were the best John Cougar songs — I was thrilled I could hold up my end of the conversation. Initially neither she nor anyone else told me the real reason she was there, but after she left I found out why: her boyfriend had been beating her up, and after she'd left him, he'd stalked her. She'd come to our home to disappear for a while. In my memory, those facts make the shadowy apartment seem even more like a bunker than it might otherwise.
Eventually Sarah went home, and life started going really well for her (as it has ever since). I found I was sorry to see her go. In her absence, I spent more time angsting over various things, some real, others not so much.
Left to my own devices, one of my favorite distractions was listening to Casey Kasem. I heard the first few "Thriller" singles that way. As I wrote in a previous post, I resisted the album at first, but the snippets I heard won me over. Making the decision to buy the record got me kind of psyched, in a way. No one in my family liked Michael Jackson, so buying the record, even though it was so popular, felt in some ways like a private thing, just for me. I remember bringing it home to my darkened room and sitting on my bed to unwrap it. I put the record on, heard "Wanna Be Startin' Somethin'" for the first time, and it was like someone turned the lights on.
I don't know what exactly happened. Maybe the song inspired me while I was feeling a bit off my game. Maybe it reminded me that there was a world outside Oklahoma. Or maybe it's just a really kick-ass song. With its urgent beat and that glorious, high-octane African chant, it was like nothing I'd ever heard. And yet, I also had the strong sense that the song couldn't be new. I know now that the chant is a riff on the one from Manu Dibango's "Soul Makossa," but if you've heard that song, you know it sounds nothing like Michael's, so that doesn't account for my aural déjà vu — how in a very strange way, I felt like I'd always known "Startin' Somethin'." I was sure the song must have been years old. I put this to people many times over the coming weeks. For some reason, they all insisted the song was new. Eventually I accepted that. I concluded it was just some peculiar magic that made the song seem special, timeless. That song, and the whole album, felt like a gift.
Like I said at the top of this post, I don't really have a favorite Michael Jackson song, but the sheer power of that one — the way it instantly brightened everything like no single song had before or has since — will always give it a special place in my heart and mind. Perhaps that's an overly sentimental notion about a song that really couldn't be less so itself, but there you have it.
Friday, August 7, 2009
"Bet people are offering you serious money for that shirt, huh?"
I responded truthfully, "Not just yet, but I would never part with it."
I got a nod, a smile, and a succinct reply: "Good."
Thursday, August 6, 2009
I no longer have in-laws, but the mother of a long-time boyfriend used to chastise me for what I thought was quite an innocuous habit: You know the butter tray in the door of your fridge? I tended to not close the little sliding door over it. (Who has time to mess with stuff like that?) My boyfriend's mother really disliked this. She would sometimes say, in what I thought was a dramatic fashion, "Who left the butter door open?" even though I think we all knew it was probably me. I tried to remember to close it, but I really didn't think it was necessary — I'd never in 30-some years had a butter-door-related mishap. I figured her concern was just an older lady's quirk.
Well, on Sunday morning I learned a lesson. I opened the fridge door and my glass butter dish came crashing down into a great many pieces, big and small, one of which ricocheted off of a vein on the top of my foot, sparking a flood of blood and a trip to the emergency room. Just to give you a sense of the scope, the split second after the incident, I looked down and thought for a moment, Did I just break a bottle of tomato juice? The amount of blood was far greater than any I have ever spilled before. As I tried to stop the bleeding (no easy task), I vaguely realized that Quentin Tarantino might think the red patterns on the gold-colored tile were rather beautiful.
I'm pretty sure my former boyfriend's mother will never happen upon this blog, but if she ever does: I'm sorry, Barbara. You were right all along!
Saturday, August 1, 2009
You spend a couple of weeks getting to know this person, and he starts enjoying life. Then you discover technology that can transform him back into the two people he originally was — the two people whom you need and want back. But of course, he doesn't want to be transformed.
This is a storyline from "Star Trek: Voyager," which I recently started watching on DVD. I'm about halfway through the series, so I figured this would be a good time to write about why it rocks.
First: A great ensemble cast, with cool characters and, in general, better acting than you see on "Next Generation" (the incomparable Patrick Stewart notwithstanding).
Second: An awesome premise. They're lost in an unknown region of space, far, far away. Forget Earth, forget Vulcan. This is real uncharted territory, which sort of harks back to the exploratory tone of the original series.
Third: Finally, a little darkness. Compared with the other "Star Trek" series that I've watched regularly (TOS and TNG), "Voyager" is a regular "Battlestar Galactica." They're not exactly throwing people out of airlocks, but the show isn't afraid to explore disturbing territory.
A good example is the episode I referred to above, the one with the transporter accident. This installment, called "Tuvix," forces Captain Kathryn Janeway (the fantastic Kate Mulgrew) to choose whom should get to live. A less challenging show would have had the new guy do some soul-searching and bravely submit to the procedure, or perhaps a fortuitous spatial anomoly would have just set things right. But "Voyager" forced Janeway to make the hard decision. I didn't agree with what she did, but I was impressed that the show made her choose.
Other examples: In "Meld," the Vulcan security chief, Tuvok, mind-melds with a murderer and discovers certain dark impulses within himself, some of which he enacts rather chillingly on the holodeck. In the creepy and claustrophic "The Thaw," one of the crew is trapped in a virtual world where an AI program presents fearful images derived from his subconscious, threatening to literally scare him to death. And in another great one, "Deadlock," Janeway discovers that the crew has been duplicated, and that the duplicate people are existing — and evolving — in a separate strand of space-time. Because of various environmental factors, only one of the crews can remain; the other has to be destroyed. It's a weird episode, one that raises interesting questions about identity. I actually thought the story was too big for an hour-long episode; I would have preferred to see it expanded, perhaps to include a better examination of the differences between the original people and their duplicates. Still, a great show.
Of course, in classic "Star Trek" tradition, there is also a fair amount of cheese, and the show takes bad science to a whole new level. (Don't get me started on the writers' clear confusion over what is meant by the term "evolution.") There are holodeck programs gone wild, an appearance by Amelia Earhart, and plenty of body-swapping. In one episode, a character actually utters the line, "Let me go after the shuttle. It is the only way we can get everybody back into the right body!"
But this is all part of that good old "Star Trek" charm, and the engaging "Voyager" characters make you forgive the series' flaws. One of my favorites is Tuvok, who, because he's a full Vulcan, is in many ways more interesting than Spock. His demeanor reminds me a little of the enchanted Stephen Black from the great novel "Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell." Another good one is B'Ellana: half-human, half-Klingon, she has the fire of a Klingon without being caught up in all the hokey rites, and she's one of many strong female characters on board. I also like the holographic doctor, particularly when he's exploring his identity with the telepath, Kes.
Speaking of Kes, I just got to the Kes/Seven changeover. If you don't know the series at all, Kes used to be the show's token "pretty girl." The character went away after the third season and was replaced by Seven of Nine, a Borg refugee played by the gorgeous Jeri Ryan. There's been a lot of speculation about why Kes was eliminated from the cast. Whatever the reasons, I thought she was a really good character, and the actress (Jennifer Lien) had a nice way about her. Her chemistry with the doctor and with several other characters was quite good. At the same time, with Seven of Nine, the show is able to explore some intriguing new avenues. Jeri Ryan is so beautiful that sometimes it's a little distracting, but overall she's not bad, and the writers give her some wonderful dialog. (The title of this post is a line she delivered, as an addendum to her admission that the cook had prepared a particularly foul meal.)
As I mourn the passing of "Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles," I'm glad to have discovered this little gem of a series, the entirety of which is available from Netflix. If you're jonesing for some decent sci-fi in this current dearth, I suggest checking it out. Of course, it can't really replace the SCC, but it does feature Sarah Silverman, in a guest spot, calling a Vulcan a "freakasaurus." What other TV show can give you that?