Friday, February 12, 2010

Winter of My Content

Big Chillin' in the Big Forge

The Rodgers Forge community came together during the snowstorm

No one likes shoveling or getting stuck driving in the snow or waiting for buses that never come while futilely trying to get to work, but...I rather enjoyed having most of this week off due to the record snow fall in Baltimore. Sure, I'll have to address the BGE heating bills, the restlessness-inspired On Demand Video bills, the loose shingles falling off my roof from the weight of the snow there, the backed-up trash awaiting pickup, fixing my car's busted electrical system (the cold temps froze three of the four power windows - which will only become an issue, say, mid-June), as well as that huge fallen tree branch as big as Long Dong Silver's namesake in my front lawn that'll have to be hauled off - eventually...but for the most part this week has brought out the best in my neighbors and community (like the Buddhist nurse next door made chili and cornbread and shared it with me) - although it sometimes has brought out the worst in the bargain-bin furniture my neighbors have used to save their shoveled-out parking spots.

I used my handy Sir Ernest Shackleton
memorial tombstone to mark my parking spot
during the blizzard

(The inclement weather also apparently brought out the worst in at least one Enoch Pratt Library crankster, who smashed one of the Central Library's glass doors and left a note saying "This is what you get for not being open!" Steve Martin would say: "Well, excuse me!" - for not being open during 24 inches of snowfall, ya ingrate!)

Yes, Baltimore's recent Snowpalooza has also given me time to reflect on the domestic front in my Rodgers Forge domicile and catch up on movies, books, and whatnot that would otherwise go neglected and unappreciated. My restless friend Dave may have been going out of his mind with boredom out in the Outer 'Burbs (making me think of Pascal's famous quote: "The sole cause of man’s unhappiness is that he does not know how to stay quietly in his room"), but not me. I relished the down time in my townhouse.

Herein is how I kept myself amused...


Ha! Ha! Ha!
Original LP released October 1977; CD re-release 2006

Got this for my birthday, the best album of the John Foxx-era Ultravox! (back when they excitedly proclaimed the ! point in their name) and the one - thanks to the digital re-release with bonus tracks - that now contains their best-ever song, "Young Savage" (both the original July 1977 single and a kick-ass live recording that shows Ultravox! lost nothing in live translation). This was the album when they let punk-leaning guitarist Stevie Shears run rampant, before sending him packing for their artsy-fartsy synths-uber-alles third LP Systems of Romance (which is also great in its polar-opposite way), and along with Mssr.'s Warren Cann, Billy Currie, and Chris Cross the result is a "bruising backdrop of feedback, booming synthesizers and screeching violins"...with the stated purpose, according to drummer Cann, of making "...songs unpleasant and objectionable to listen to..." that would make listeners "very uncomfortable."

Background music to read J. G. Ballard by, in other words. (And that's a good thing, in my far-from-unbiased opinion.) Actually, far from being uncomfortable, I felt like I was listening to early Roxy Music - albeit with a bite. For this was the transitional Ultravox! album, the one on which they first experimented with fully electronic instruments like the synthesizer ("The Man Who Dies Every Day") and drum machine (the preset-beats of a Roland TR-77 on "Hiroshima Mon Amour"), the one sandwiched between their trad rock, Bowie-indebted/Eno-produced debut LP Ultravox! (1976) and the all-out synth attack of Systems of Romance (1978). Yup, this was the one whose Electronics-meets-Shears-heart-attack sound would later be echoed in Goth-Indusrial-friendly works like Depeche Mode's Songs of Faith and Devotion and Nine Inch Nails's Pretty Hate Machine.

No one packed more verbiage into rock and roll thought balloons than John Foxx - not even the equally verbose Dylan - and he walked the walk as well as he talked the talk, as born witness by his live rendition of "Young Savage" wherein the words don't just unfurl, they avalanche. "Money rents you insulation/Tenderness, asphyxiation/Someone else's flesh to borrow/Sling it from your bed tomorrow...Changing blossoms into piss/And taking bites from every kiss..." culminating in the infectious chorus "Think like a steel wall, stink like a dance hall, anything goes where no one knows your name."

Of course, it's interesting that a track such as "ROckWrok" (the title being a nod to Marcel Duchamp's "Rongwrong" Dada piece) got BBC airplay when released as a single despite lines like "Let's tangle in the dark, fuck like a dog, bite like a shark" but a song from the first album entitled "My Sex" got banned for its title alone. (No sex please, we're British!) Actually, it's probably a testament to Foxx's ability to spit out oral barrages so densely-packed that the censors couldn't decipher them! It's also interesting that a song entitled "Hiroshima Mon Amour" bears no relation to the 1959 French arthouse film of the exact same name by Alain Resnais (from a screenplay by Marguerite Duras), but Foxx claimed he had never seen it. Speaking of which...

One final thought: Though the original synth and electronic-drummed "Hiroshima Mon Amour" album track was much bally-hooed upon its initial release for its sophistico Euro-sound, the highlight of this 2006 CD re-release has to be the far superior "alternate version" that only appeared on the flip side of the 1977 "ROckWrok" single until its restoration's quite astounding and features Old School electric guitar histrionics courtesy of Mr. Stevie Shears. Shop and compare; it's no contest.


While the Bobcats plowed the snow outside, I plowed through the following eclectic reads I had stacked in knee-high piles around the house (courtesy of the downtown library and Daedalus Books)...

by David Peace

I hated the annoying narrative style of Peace's Tokyo Year Zero (his novel about post-war serial rapist/killer Kodaira Yoshio, who was executed in 1949), but back in the Occident, specifically the "hard north" of England's West Yorkshire county, Peace knows from more than nowt. I read 1974 (retitled Nineteen Seventy Four for its paperback publication) at the same time as I watched the filmed version of the first installment in his Red Riding Quartet of novels (alleged named both for Yorkshire's West Riding district and the color of blood - but also with a nod to the Brothers Grimm and their Little Red Riding Hood tale of innocents in danger from wolves in sheep's clothing) - this one modeled after Manchester's infamous Moors Murderers, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the sex sadists who tortured and killed five young innocents in the 1960s. In Peace's novel, something's rotten in the state of Yorkshire, specifically Leeds and Fitzwilliam, as missing children are turning up with wings stitched into their backs. Yes, creepy as all get out. But wait, there's more - corruption, graft, sexual obsession, and that whole North vs. South, Us vs. Them thing the Brits have going on once you head north past the Watford Gap.

by Jack Seward

Fascinating read of unusual stories from Japan, from the famous story of Sada Abe (who strangled and then Bobbitt-cized her lover, as captured on screen in In the Realm of the Senses) to seven dramatic examples of ritual disembowelment. Many of these stories take place on Kyushu - the southernmost of the "Big Four" islands making up Nippon (and unfortunately most famous for being home of H-bomb target Nagasaki) - the place where my girlfriend's mom was born.

Much a-do about Kyushu

For example, it was in Kyushu that Grand Duke Alexander Romanov, brother-in-law of Russian Czar Nicolas II, took a Japanese wife and learned the hillbilly patois of her native Inasa dialect (an Ebonics-like dialect incomprensible to almost all other Japanese) that later embarrassed him when he visited the Imperial Court. And it was in Kyushu that the tradition of yobai (night crawling) was practiced; this was a variation on the Amish "bungling" ritual whereby young men and women get their first sexual experience by crawling under the covers to fool around in the dark with unseen partners. (Since the partners are unseen, it gives the participants "plausible deniability" should they wish to reject their futon feelers.) But the strangest story of all has to be the one from Yoshii, Kyushu, about the eels in the Chikugo River that have been known to crawl into women's coochies and escape rather violently, sometimes rupturing young lasses' maidenheads in their desperation to find an escape route. One such unfortunate woman was the daughter of a doctor who, to restore his daughter's lost honor, developed a surgical technique for implanting a man-made maidenhead (jinko shojo-maku). I kid you not - gynecologist-turned-plastic surgeon Dr. Kohei Matsukubo went on to win fame and fortune (from many a prospective "virgin" bride) for his pioneering "hymen retreading" procedure. Hmmm...I'm afraid I'll picture this story from now on whenever I eat inagi roll!

The Fast Times and Hard Life of an American Gangster in Japan
by Robert Whiting

Still working my way through this one, which I spied atthe library and couldn't put down.

"Through the eyes of Nick Zappetti, a former GI, former black marketer, failed professional wrestler, bungling diamond thief who turned himself into "the Mafia boss of Tokyo and the king of Rappongi," we meet the players and the losers in the high-stakes game of postwar finance, politics, and criminal corruption in which he thrived. Here's the story of the Imperial Hotel diamond robbers, who attempted (and may have accomplished) the biggest heist in Tokyo's history. Here is Rikidozan, the professional wrestler who almost single-handedly revived Japanese pride, but whose own ethnicity had to be kept secret. And here is the story of the intimate relationships shared by Japan's ruling party, its financial combines, its ruthless criminal gangs, the CIA, American Big Business, and perhaps at least one presidential relative. Here is the underside of postwar Japan, which is only now coming to light."

Once again, Kyushu figures in the narrative, with Zappetti's Japanese underworld career starting with his deployment to Nagasaki.

From Post-War to 1959
a Taschen book (natch!)

Every man and woman on Earth should read this epic undertaking on the history of men's magazines compiled by Dian Hanson (former editor of Juggs and Leg Show and author of The Big Trilogy: The Big Penis Book, The Big Book of Legs, and The Big Book of Breasts)...

Dian Hanson's works are always massive undertakings

...and published by the reigning king of coffee table books, Taschen. Finally picked this up at Daedalus Books after looking at it forever, and I'm glad I did, as it's the kind of book that keeps a man warm during a Snowmageddon. Seriously, this isn't really just prurient reading, it's actually a valuable history lesson about a lost age when American publishers sold the sizzle and not the steak, a time before Internet porn when there was some eye-winking style and (low-brow) wit in what has become today's tunnel-visioned, speculum-probin', gyno-moronic sleaze. A time of Benny Hill swinging bachelorhood, not Max Hardcore psycho-sociopathy. (See also Taschen description: History of Men's Magazines Vol. 2.)


Too many to detail, so I'll just list them...

RED RIDING: 1974 (2009)
directed by Julian "Kinky Boots" Jarrod

Moors Murders transplanted to West Yorkshire, starring Andrew Garfield, David Morrissey, Sean Bean, and the beautiful Rebecca Hall (Vicky Christina Barcelona). Plus Gerard Kearns (Ian from Brit TV's Shameless) as Leonard Cole.

RED RIDING: 1980 (2009)
directed by James "Man On Wire" Marsh

Yorkshire Ripper yarn starring the always excellent Paddy Considine and David Morrissey.

RED RIDING: 1983 (2009)
directed by Anand "Hilary and Jackie" Tucker

The Moors Murders and Yorkshire Ripper redux, plus a resolution, starring David Morrissey and Mark Addy.

directed by Sam Fuller

Only the anti-Commie sentiment dates this classic noir featuring made-for-noir star Richard Widmark, Jean Peters, and Thelma Ritter - whose death scene near the end is still hard to top and is no doubt why she was Oscar-nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

directed by David Munro

I wanted to hate this hipster-doofus slacker tale of much-ado-about-nothing, but the acting - featuring one guy who looked like NBA star Steve Nash and another who looked like a slightly slimmer pony-tailed Penn Jillette - and the writing kept me from switching off. Plus there were celeb cameos courtesy of Alan Cummings, Deborah Harry, and Amy Sedaris. The Steve Nash lookalike was Matt McGrath, playing 35-year-old hipster "Alby" whose wife kicks him out until he can prove he's grown up and can do more than relive his childhood by playing with his Action Jackson doll. Then he goes on a Pee-Wee Herman-esque roadtrip trip - the last ride to his cherished childhood memories - with his old school pal "Elias" (Judah Friedlander, from American Splendor), who now works with developmentally challenged youngsters. Those "retarded" kids were an annoying appeal to whimsical sentimentality, which I loathe, but the low point had to be the gratuitous use of the other kind of "little people" - the scene where Amy Sedaris' midget bouncers kick the shit out of Albee. Dumb. Again, I should really hate this hipster update of the Peter Pan story, but something about it fooled me into staying the course. OK, maybe it was the snowstorm.

directed by Werner Herzog

Sick of all the surfeit of documentaries about penguins and sea lions from the South Pole, Herzog instead turns his lens on the most fascinating creatures currently inhabiting Antartica: the humans. They're a definite different breed, a wack pack of post-Hippie New Age philosophers, nomadic world travelers, and science-obsessed social misfits, whose collective world views and life missions are given poignancy via Herzog's signature poetic narration and cinematography.

GUN CRAZY (1950) (aka Deadly is the Female)
directed by Joseph H. Lewis

I had forgotten just how great this film was, not having watched it in years, until I dug it out in anticipation of the film screening I was presenting later that week at the library. Along with Blade Runner and Even Hitler Had a Girlfriend, it's in my Top Three Holy Trinity of Cinematic Treasures. Lewis's other classic noir feature The Big Combo is also worth checking out (maybe next snow storm), as it features perhaps the first overtly gay gangster couple in cinema history: Fante (Lee Van Cleef) and Mingo (Earl Holliman). Not to mention the great torture-by-hearing-aid scene (heads up Gitmo interrogators, you missed this one!). Oh, and the young Bart/John Dahl character in Gun Crazy was played by none other than Russ "Rusty" Tamblyn, the acrobatic child star who would soon go on to dancing fame in Seven Brides for Seeven Brothers and West Side Story, and later excel as cult kook shrink Dr. Jacoby in Twin Peaks.


OK, back to shoveling. Good thing I stocked up on red wine and Naproxen.


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