Monday, July 13, 2009

Jarvis Cocker, My Hero

Once upon a time, a brave man had a sane response to Michael Jackson and his public image, and he heroically acted on it. I wish to briefly salute an iconic moment in the history of the fight against the forces of evil.
The former head of the band Pulp (and extremely good current solo artist), Cocker was present for Michael Jackson’s performance during the 1996 Brit Awards.

During the highly choreographed performance, Cocker got on stage and pranced around for a bit before security chased him off.

Cocker later explained that he didn’t like the way Jackson was surrounded by choirs of children and overt religious iconography, and he jumped on stage to poke fun at this. The singer - whose own lyrics are often clever, self-deprecating musings about the chasms between desire and fulfillment, between appearance and reality - has explained that while he’s not religious, he was offended by the Christ-like pose Jackson was striking.

Let’s be honest and admit the possibility that Cocker was also intoxicated in some way, that such silly behavior at an awards show is obviously attention-seeking, and that sure, maybe it was a dangerous thing to do on a stage which included a crane, a choir of children and someone dressed as a rabbi (?!) but no matter.

The important, brilliant thing is that Cocker’s instinctive response to seeing Michael Jackson was to leap in and take the piss out of him.

I wish some of the millions of people who’d seen and worked with Jackson over the years as he was transforming into a tragic freak had had an ounce of the same courage. Michael Jackson was a good singer and dancer, but otherwise almost every aspect of his life was a sad example of some of our most lamentable traits as a society.

The fact that few people aside from Cocker ever had the guts to stand up and point out that this particular emperor had no clothes shows the extent to which the sickness that produced the monstrous figure of Michael Jackson was not within him, but in us.

The current hagiographic treatment of the prematurely deceased Jackson only confirms to me that we produced this deformed creature, we created and fed his situation, and now that he’s dead we are clamoring to show off just how utterly we have failed to learn anything about our crime, about the poisonous human urge to put people on pedestals.

We grovel to the whims of people with more money or higher status than ourselves. We yearn to cheer and weep vicariously at the actions of celebrities who we expect to be superhuman. We love to worship living saints, interrupted occasionally by malicious glee at their eventual downfall.

Michael Jackson wasn’t a saint - in fact no human being in history has yet been what we think of as a saint - and yet we still love to set them up there above us and then pretend to be shocked when they fall. It’s all part of the same misguided, Manichaean, probably instinctive idealism that allows us to still believe in oxymorons like holy wars and Christian presidents and infallible popes and selfless celebrities.

It’s the rare hero like Jarvis Cocker who has the courage to point out, even for a few moments, that this whole sick cycle of saint-worship is a load of nauseating garbage, and for that I salute him. I suggest we erect a giant statue in his honor.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

Blue Badger IRL

Just a random déja vu thing that happened to me during our recent trip to Japan - twice. I like a certain series of handheld video games about cartoon lawyers. A typical case will revolve around bringing to light, through a long process of investigation and examining evidence, that the accused is left-handed when the murder weapon was a right-handed golf club. Or whatever.

Sounds stupid, and often is, but the gameplay is very similar to old-school point-and-click adventure games, and the dialogue can be surprisingly funny. The games are clearly set in Japan but, at least in the English translation, take place in fictional locations.

I’ve played through four games in this series now, and a couple of them make jokes about the police department having a silly-looking mascot - the “Blue Badger”. Here he is, in front of the police building, in the background from one of the games.

Well, the other week in Ginza I strolled past what seemed to be the police museum (fun for the whole family, right?), and it... er... just look:

Not hard to see where the video game designers’ grand inspiration came from. Here’s that pantsless police creature’s website, complete with theme song. Ah, Japan.

Then the same thing happened the next day. Strange-looking stadium from the game:

Real stadium:

Now, I have no illusions that I’ve discovered something new here. I’m sure that Pipo-kun the haunting police beast and that strenuously architecture-y stadium are as familiar to Japanese people as an igloo to an Eskimo, and that’s why they were parodied in these games. It just makes me wonder how many other caricatured landmarks, celebrities, myths etc. from foreign cultures I’ve been exposed to for years without having the slightest clue. And somehow I feel slightly let down that the Blue Badger turned out to be biting real-world satire and not just a strange, random figment of someone’s imagination.

I guess most works of art are like that - you can always deepen your understanding of them by studying more about the context they were created in, but that knowledge can end up tainting your enthusiasm for the artwork in the first place.

Like how taking a good, close look at Jon Voight’s face explains so, so much about Angelina Jolie, but also utterly destroys her hotness.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

An American Nerd in Tokyo

So: I’m not one of those guys who loves everything from Japan just because it’s from Japan. I wasn’t in an anime club in high school. I don’t own any plastic figurines of megacephalic schoolgirls striving unsuccessfully to conceal their undergarments. I don’t always know the appropriate Pokémon to deploy in any given combat situation. I think sushi is gross.

Nevertheless, I have in my own sad way been preparing for our recent trip to Japan for about 25 years now. It all began in August, 1984, when I read G.I. Joe comic book issue number 26. This was my first encounter with ninjas. Ninjas are totally awesome. I don’t think I need to say anything more on the subject.

We got our first Nintendo Entertainment System soon afterwards. An utter failure at old-school twitch games like Pac-Man, I was obsessed by Zelda and Metroid, where I didn’t die every ten seconds and where exploration was more important than getting a high score.

I could probably go on for thousands of words about the various things from Japan I encountered over the intervening decades and how they warped me into the magnificent specimen I am today, but let’s fast forward to early April, 2009. As we headed from Bangkok to Japan for my first trip there, I had only one goal in mind:

1) Buy the fanciest Shogi set.

In spite of being possibly the world’s worst chess player I’m very interested in regional variants of chess, and Shogi not only seemed like an intriguing mutation of the game (captured pieces can be put back into play by the capturer), but a great aesthetic creation, combining carved wood and evocative calligraphy in that special Japanese way.

Technically speaking I already owned two Shogi sets, but one was an embarrassingly cheap Chinese crapfest I’d bought in Malaysia and partially ruined by varnishing it with Dr. Sloan’s Liniment, while the other was a plastic pocket set I’d bought in Singapore. So I decided that whatever else happened during our vacation, I would try my damnedest to get a nice set as a souvenir.

After an abortive attempt to enlist the services of our hotel concierge in researching the surviving time-honored, family-run Shogi workshops of Olde Nippon for me, I reverted to my suburban American shopping instincts and resigned myself to buying whatever crap I could find in big stores downtown. I snatched up a box of pieces and a board (sold separately) in Takashimaya in Kyoto, but the set of pieces cost the equivalent of ten bucks and was barely a step up from my rough-hewn Chinese abomination, so I was still on the hunt.

As soon as I had a free morning in Tokyo, I lurched off up and down the chilly avenues of Ginza with great vigor.

Here’s me setting sail on my grand adventure. Note the traditional Shogi hunter’s cap.

Turns out a lot of the stores don’t open until 11:00, so I did a lot of standing around and drinking free tea in vestibules while my vigor slowly curdled. I finally found a set of pieces for around 3,500 yen in a big toy store, and almost bought it, but the paint job seemed slapdash and I kept looking.

Here’s me out and about in Ginza. My stern expression indicates dedication to the quest. (Actually, the picture was taken after the quest was over, and my expression was meant to convey immense, uncontrolled excitement and pride. I guess I have to work on my expressions.)

I’m glad I waited, because later in a department store called Matsuya I found a much sharper-looking set for only 2,500 yen or so. The characters were actually stamped or carved into the wood, not just painted on. I found it the most handsome set I’d yet seen, and at a price that wouldn’t force us to survive on ramen flavoring packets for the rest of the trip.

Elated, I wasted no time in sauntering back to my hotel room and fixing the moment of my grand triumph forever in time by taking the lavish photo spread you see here.

Shogi aficionados will note the unusual characters on the pawns. Instead of the normal “soldier” character that I recognize from Chinese chess, it’s a bunch of horizontal lines. I still don’t know what the deal is with that.

I also found a set of playing cards, an old game called hanafuda. Adorably (to a sucker for calendrical symbology like me), its 12 suits are based on the 12 months - on plants which blossom in Japan throughout the year and the animals which frolic amidst them. To my delight I saw that the set was actually made by Nintendo, and later research showed that it was the company’s original product back in 1889.

So why have I told you all this? Read on just a bit more, dear reader, to read for yourself the surprising punchline to this rambling tale of lusty Asian shopping:

Upon my return to Bangkok, while doing some more research into the rules of hanafuda, I found Nintendo’s page about their vestigial card-game division. Something about looking at this page, and considering my hanafuda cards, made me curious about the Nintendo logo. If the company had been around for over a century, surely its logo wasn’t always the English word “Nintendo” in a snazzy red font?

What was Japanese, so to speak, for “Nintendo”? Funny how I’d never thought of that before. A short search later I found the Kanji characters, matched them up to some characters on the hanafuda card box, and realized they looked rather familiar. Where had I seen that logo before?


I had, utterly without knowing it and completely by chance, bought and brought back home with me both a Shogi board and a set of Shogi pieces MANUFACTURED BY NINTENDO. The circle of my life was complete. I had traveled the world only to find that what I was searching for had been with me all along. Nintendo Shogi turned out to be the twist on the Moebius strip, the final/first sentence of Finnegans Wake. To paraphrase Borges:

Others will dream that I am mad, and I [will dream] of Mario. When all men on earth think day and night of Mario, which one will be a dream and which a reality, the earth or the Mushroom Kingdom?

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Smartening and The Artening

I just wanted to quickly point out that in Japan, the best-selling video game for the last two weeks running has been the latest in the series of Professor Layton games. In the UK, a recent release of an older Professor Layton game has also apparently been a great success.

I am cheered by this news because these games are little more than compilations of old math and logic questions, spruced up with beautiful hand-drawn backgrounds and old-fashioned animated characters.
When you play a Professor Layton game, the experience typically goes as follows: you wander through a lovingly drawn area reminiscent of the LucasArts-heyday backgrounds on Curse of Monkey Island, click on a quirky character who looks like a reject from The Triplets of Belleville, and he or she says something like “I will give you this shiny gold coin if you can help me, young man. I have a rowboat, a fox, a chicken, and a bag of feed...”

Each game has over a hundred hard-core logic puzzles, disguised by an atmospheric point-and-click adventure interface. I’m usually turned off by games that lean heavily on reheated old puzzles, like the infuriating “Tower of Bozbar” and “Peggleboz” from Zork Zero, but Layton’s design somehow makes the old logic chestnuts addictive and charming.

The fact that these adorable games are so popular shows that there’s an enormous audience out there for creative video games which are both highly artistic and educational. Of course, people have been similarly excited about the success of Brain Age for a couple of years because it’s educational, but to me the Professor Layton games are much more interesting because I have to assume that they appeal to a younger crowd than Brain Age. Some of those nearly half-million Japanese people who’re already playing the newest game must be children, and it’s nice to think of their little brains stretching to figure out how to row that fox and chicken across the river. (hm - note how that phrase I just wrote, “how to row that fox” is like a tongue twister or something. Four different vowel sounds from “o” as the second letter in a word. English spelling must be so annoying for learners).

Also, nothing against 3D backgrounds or animation, but the fact that these are hand-drawn 2D is a tiding of great joy to me, both for nostalgic reasons and because I think it’s an eye-pleasing use of the small DS screen, where 3D environments can look like a blocky mess. There’s clearly still a place in the gaming industry for people who can draw and paint old-fashioned backgrounds, and that’s a nice thought.

In conclusion, everyone who has ever complained about how video games are violent or detrimental to children should please, please just shut up forever. This possibly includes, with all due respect, our next president.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Newsweek Is-Weird

Look at the odd hyphenation in the following extract from this Newsweek article:

“It is eerily quiet at Barack Obama's headquarters, an open expanse that takes up the entire 11th floor of an office tower in Chicago's Loop. It's nearly as silent as a study hall, which is appropriate, since most of the 20- or 30-somethings in it wear jeans and T shirts.
Like FDR and Ronald Reagan, Obama is an innovator in organizing and communicating. Roosevelt was the first to rely on labor unions, and he talked intimately to voters through the then new medium of radio.”

What made them not hyphenate the two phrases screaming out for it, “T shirts” and “the then new medium&rdquo? I guess you could make a case for “T shirt”, but the other thing is just a mess. The then new medium? Really? The author later goes on to use “reaching-out” as a noun. Ick. In the same article, I also found Newsweek’s quaintly Victorian insistence on two periods in “Ph.D.” a little strange, but that’s a different matter-entirely.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The impact will blow trees back and crack statues

My favorite era in rap music was roughly ’94 to ’98, when East Coast hardcore was at its height. I loved the gritty, verbose, cryptic, violent sound of the Wu Tang Clan, Gravediggaz, Mobb Deep, the Boot Camp Clik and related groups. It was dense, paranoid and clanking music best suited for headphones on the subway.

Hip hop didn’t get any more anti-commercial than the GZA, who epitomized the cold world of the mid-’90s’ stern, Biblical-prophet wordplay, while his groupmate ODB rapped like a street-corner drunk a few seconds from toppling over, crooning and ranting at passing cars. Somewhere between those two poles, between sesquipedalian urban Jeremiads and raving homicidal lunacy, lay the essence of the Wu era’s greatness, and it was all set to great beats from the likes of the RZA, DJ Premier, Havoc, 4th Disciple and Da Beatminerz.

For a few years, it seemed as if everyone was weaving dense lyrical webs of comic-book, kung-fu, Scarface and militant Five Percenter references over ominous beats. It all came to an end sometime before the turn of the century, when, to make a long story short, a shrewd buffoon named Puff Daddy dominated an era of dumber, openly superficial, radio-friendly rap which increasingly incorporated baleful R&B caterwauling (the kiss of death as far as I was concerned).

Things got even worse as Nelly-style silly sing-song cadences and lyrically vacant Southern rap started to catch on in the ensuing years. Instead of lyrics like Deck’s superb alliterative/assonant “Poisonous paragraphs smash ya phonograph in half / It be the Inspectah Deck on the warpath / First class leavin mics with a cast / Causin ruckus like the aftermath when guns blast / Run fast, here comes the verbal assaulta / Rhymes runnin wild like a child in a walker”, we had “It’s getting hot in here, so take off all your clothes”. Mo’ money, mo’ problems, indeed.

I thought for a few years there that hardcore hip hop was dead. As usual, I just wasn’t looking in the right places. People like Jedi Mind Tricks and M.F. DOOM were keeping the torch lit, and the web made it possible to find those few groups who were still putting out quality music. But for the past few years it’s usually been a depressing trickle rather than a steady stream of new stuff, and my old favorites seemed to have run out of steam.

Then, over the last couple of months, two albums from old favorites dropped which together have resuscitated my faith in hip hop. Heltah Skeltah, always the standouts in the Boot Camp roster, had been absent for almost ten years. Half of the duo, the hilarious Sean Price, had been putting out solid stuff, but it just wasn’t the same. Now there’s a new Heltah Skeltah album out, and it’s great. Don’t judge the following track by its slightly comical intro - things really get rolling around 0:30.

In addition, a great collaboration album between two of my favorite artists, one which plays to both of their strengths, recently came out. While they usually outshine anyone they share a track with, on their own solo albums, Killah Priest and Chief Kamachi can both be monotonous (Priest’s problem being a sometimes low-energy delivery and Kamachi’s Achilles heel being repetitive spoken hooks). The perfect solution was to have them combine forces on a tag-team album, and the result is electrifying. These elder statesmen of mythological-themed hip hop rap with infectious urgency, as if someone’s just slapped new batteries in their backs.

That’s all I wanted to say - I was worried there for a few years but clearly hardcore hip hop is back from the dead, and if you liked any earlier works from these artists, check out the new albums today.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Late Bloomers and Slow Burners

Two things coincided today which had me thinking about Yeats’s ferociously powerful late-period poetry, and about one of the greatest fruits of that elderly incandescence, his “Among School Children” with its memorable chestnut tree (not pictured), the great-rooted blossomer which is leaf, blossom and bole at once.

The first was a touching article in the New Yorker which dwells on the work of an economist at the University of Chicago named David Galenson, who has been trying to study whether artistic genius and precocity are really as linked as we think. It turns out, to my great personal relief, that there are artists who try to “find”, and artists who try to “search”, and that the searching kind of art can take decades and decades before coming to fruition. The article’s story about the author Ben Fountain, and the years it took for him to gain success as a writer, and the support he got from his family, actually had me kvelling at work.

The second thing which set me thinking today was my absurdly delayed appreciation of most recent album by my favorite band, Sigur Rós. Without exaggeration, I’d say the first fifteen or twenty times I listened to the album, it left me cold. True, the first time I heard the new album was unfortunately in an airplane, and I missed half of what was going on because of the ambient engine noise, but still, I felt like my favorite group had let me down. It seemed like a barren, repetitive album.

Then, about two weeks ago, something clicked, and I swayed to music with brightening glance. I was listening listlessly to Með suð í eyrum við spilum endalaust or, as I think of it because my bad German is better than my atrocious Icelandic, Mit (einen) Summen in (unsren) Ohren spielen wir endlos on my way to work, and the October sun lined up perfectly with the east-west grid of my neighborhood in Bangkok, and shone pinkly through the mist between the skyscrapers, and the entire world seemed to be singing out to me in joyful harmony through my iPod. I suddenly realized that the album was f*cking brilliant from start to finish, that it was one of the best albums I’d ever heard bar none, and for the third time in my life my daily commute made my day. (The first time involved a hot summer day, Weezer’s Pinkerton, a malfunctioning Honda Accord, and Route 6 in Connecticut, the second time involved Sigur Rós’s “Vaka”, a snowy winter morning, and Munich’s Tram 17.) Here is a picture of me this morning striding sweatfully yet manfully down Soi 51 on my way to work, in silent awe at the musical genius of Iceland’s finest.

I’ve listened to the album almost nonstop, over and over again, every chance I’ve gotten since. And not just certain tracks - I’m talking front to back. But - and here’s the point - it took me at least twenty listens before I had the “damn dawg this is a great album” epiphany. This is my favorite band we’re talking about here, and it still took months for their album to grow on me.

What happened to cause me to suddenly appreciate this music so deeply? Was it because the album is more subtle than their previous work? Is it just something that takes a while to become comfortable with? Or had I changed in the interim? Or was it the setting in which I heard it, riding the BTS above Bangkok at dawn, which caused everything to come together? How can we know, as Yeats asked, the dancer from the dance (or in this case, the music from the listener from the surroundings)?

Whatever happened, I wonder about the other things in life which I’ve been exposed to and been left cold by 19 times... just waiting for that magic number 20 to click. Imagine the authors whose work I would love if I read one or two more books. I can only hope I am lucky enough to have enough time on this planet to appreciate more of the masterpieces which I’ve overlooked in the past.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

John McCain Is A Colossal Jerk

I urge you to leave this blog at once and read this great Rolling Stone article on John McCain’s life story. He is actually a much more despicable privileged asshole, f*ck-up and failure as a human being than our current president. He is a vile jerk and a horny, bitter, coarse little man. He’s been making all that pretty clear on his own over the past few weeks, but this article kind of completed the portrait for me.

p.s. I’m linking to the “print” version of the article, because no sane human should be forced to click through ten pages of hyperlinks to read one article.

Thursday, October 02, 2008

Anastasius of Sinai

Rembrandt is one of those painters who (whom?) I normally admire, but don’t love. Perhaps it’s just because his name comes up so often that I have tuned him out, or perhaps it’s because some of his paintings in the museums I’ve frequented, like his creepy self-portrait in Munich’s Alte Pinakothek, seemed somehow unpleasant to me. But I just stumbled across a painting of his which I haven’t seen before, of the learned Anastasius of Sinai, which captures what, to me, was great about Rembrandt. The murky light, the weight of the sage’s body, the strangely comfortable solitude. It’s a picture that distills old-school learnedness to its essence: a man, a book, a desk, a window. I could have done without the elaborate Turkish carpet/tablecloth, but nobody’s perfect.