Forty Guns and I Wouldn't Shut Up
129 · 17 July 97
It's amazing how the smallest things can end up defining a company's culture. At the one where I work, one of our odd policies is that every new employee (which is all of us, since the company was only formed a year ago) gets to spend fifty dollars of the company's money on some non-vetoable contribution to our public space. How much damage, I guess the two founders figured, can you do with fifty dollars? Someone used their allowance on a toaster, because what's a kitchen without a toaster in it? I got us a dart board, which was more fun before we put in so many cubicles that there's nowhere safe to hang it any more. Several of the other early arrivals, though, pooled their allotments together and bought a foosball table. This turns out to have been a pivotal event in our corporate history. In the beginning the foosball table was off in a back room, next to the midget pool table that our CEO brought in. We tried to play pool, too, we really did, but the geometric reduction of pool components attempted by this miniature table was only successful visually; once you moved from admiring how cute the table was to actually trying to produce vector reactions, and discovered that the weight ratios were all wrong and the table couldn't be kept level without force fields, the illusion fell to pieces. The cues didn't fit hands, the table was at an undignified height, the balls, even when they did inadvertently fall into pockets, made a thoroughly unsatisfying little noise. Games dragged on interminably, the players taking turns beseeching chance to lure one of their targets into a hole. Not only wasn't it any fun playing, it was even less fun in between your shots, standing around watching somebody else not have fun. "We just need to adjust the legs", our CEO insisted, as if this were Space Wars, and a few twists of a socket wrench would alter the table's gravity, or make it so that balls hit against one wall magically rebounded out of the opposite one. We never came right out and told him we didn't like his table, since it was undeniably nice of him to buy it for us, but eventually the pool table itself took the hint, and one weekend while we were gone it wrapped some sandwiches in a handkerchief and hitchhiked its way, mournfully, back to Toys R Us. (Most commonly overheard phrase in a Toys R Us, according to one of my sister's friends who manages one: "That's why I never take you to Toys R Us.")
The foosball table, on the other hand, had every appeal the pool table lacked. Four people could play at it at once, stabbing determinedly at the passing ball with whatever combination of calculated intent and feral fury they felt inspired to apply. What an intensely pleasant thwack the ball made smashing into the back wall of the goal. How sweet the joy of executing a perfect far-man pull shot. How fierce the triumph of rejecting a full-force two-man clearance back into the shooter's own beckoning goal. Being a startup software company is a stressful venture, sitting at a keyboard all day is nerve-wracking, and computer programmers are competitive people; here was a way to relieve mental and physical stress at once, and to fight over something other than the program's architecture. When the back room that served as our arena got converted to cubicles as the company grew, the foosball table actually moved out into the lobby of our offices, at which point it became our mascot in fact as well as in principle, and featured almost as prominently in the handful of early TV-news puff-pieces done about us as we ourselves did. The day after one of these ran, a three minute profile in which we could be seen playing foosball, shooting each other with Nerf weapons, arguing about the rules to Toss Across and expounding on the virtues of a company that would buy you a really big monitor if you asked them to, but at no time actually writing computer software, our CEO got a phone message from one of our investors that began "What are you running over there, some kind of social experiment?"
The real problem, actually, was not that foosball left us unable to concentrate on what our investors' money was supposed to be underwriting, but that we started to get good enough at foosball that doubles games simply took too long to finish. We were mentally refreshed and ready to write some more software, but we didn't have time. In an effort to speed up the games, one of our players brought in a new set of balls, hard and unmanageable things that ricocheted crazily around the table, spinning into goals in smug disregard for all the careful maneuvers we'd cultivated with the old, slow, fuzzy balls. This did accelerate things, but at the expense, many of us couldn't help but feel, of the quality of play. Sometimes, though, the problem with a bad thing is that there just isn't enough of it. One day, in a fit of impatience, somebody flung two of the skittery, lopsided, misfit-marble-like new balls onto the table at once. This was a revelation. One lopsided, uncontrollable foosball ball is infuriating, but two of them at once is a hysterically deranged simulation of what subatomic particles would act like drunk. Chaosball was born.
The rules of Chaosball, for those of you with foosball tables who wish to try it, are as follows. The game is always played two-on-two (one-on-one Chaosball is physically possible, but a hopeless mess, and officially unsanctioned). Each attacking player begins the game with one ball in hand, and at the starting cry they fling them into play (service subtleties are deprecated in Chaosball) and everyone begins whacking at the two balls with as little finesse as possible. When a goal is scored, the victimized defender must retrieve the ball and return it to play promptly (doing this without getting instantly scored upon with the other ball takes some practice), while at the other end of the table the defender of the team that scored must also record the tally with one hand while play continues. A dead ball cannot be touched or re-served, it must be dislodged with the live one. We made up a rule at one point about what to do if both balls become marooned in neutral zones at once, but I've forgotten what it was, and in several months of play the situation has never come up. As noted earlier, the harder, more irregular and more uncooperative foosballs you can find, the better. Chaosball games go by extremely quickly, so matches are always two-out-of-three. And if you play during company board meetings, close the conference room door first.
I bring this all up because you will find, if you play Chaosball long enough, that your experience of the game undergoes an interesting transformation. The first few times you try it, you may well be incapacitated mid-game by laughter, because it's nearly impossible to follow the two balls at once, and defense is almost entirely a matter of positional fortuity. With enough practice, though, we've found that the game can be played deliberately. It doesn't slow down, you speed up. Monitoring two trajectories at once never gets any easier, but somehow we must develop the ability to incorporate peripheral-vision observations into our positional choices, because most of our regular players can now intercept simultaneous shots that would surely have scored if conscious thought had to get involved. Instead of trying to track and strike each ball, you learn to recognize patterns, and to play by directing flow.
And this, at the risk of introducing a transition to metaphor with all the subtlety of Thor getting frustrated while trying to make balloon animals at his five-year-old son's birthday party, is what my life has been like for the past week. Far too many things have been going on at once for me to grasp or assess them all, but somehow I've managed to deflect the majority of them in useful directions, or at least so that they cluster and don't have to all be dealt with individually.
For example, I saw Contact over the weekend. There are some things about it I violently dislike (the portrayal of the aliens smacked, I thought, of having been written by a scientist who was unable to set his authorial imagination free of his scientific unwillingness to speculate), and some that leave me astonished and admiring (this is almost certainly the largest sum of money that has ever been spent to make atheism seem heroic to a popular audience), and guilty about having refused to read the book out of elitist contempt for Sagan's TV antics. But most of all I left the theater with a mad crush on Jodie Foster. Her character, I mean, not the actress. Not even the character I saw in the movie, actually, who behaves in some movie-ish ways I didn't believe. I fell in love with the person the scientist would have been, if she'd been real. Matthew McConaughey's over-earnest spiritual adviser grabs her by the shoulders and asks, pain and incomprehension lacing his voice (and irony wholly missing), why she would give her life to meet aliens, why she would leave him to pursue science and truth. But I'm with her. The chance of learning something that could transform humanity is worth at least one human life. How could you love somebody who didn't believe that?
Given that all this is fiction, though, and the truths of the universe are not actually being proffered, there's something surreal and more than a little pathetic about my falling in love with an actress, much less a fictional character, much less a hypothetical alternate fictional character constructed in my mind by contrast with the "real" fake one. But I realize that the surreality and pathos of this make it no less surprising. Given the structure of my life, I get to know a lot more fictional people (and celebrities are fictional in this sense, unless you know them personally) than I do real ones. I imagine this is true for most people, actually, certainly ones who work in offices sitting in front of computers all day, certainly anybody with the spare time to spend reading endless diaristic digressions en route to music reviews. But the unidirectionality of the relationship doesn't preclude ardor. Some of the most important people in my life don't have the slightest idea who I am. Standing in an autograph line last night, at the fan-appreciation event for New England Revolution season-ticket holders, I realized that I didn't need a special night to "meet" (i.e. have a soccer ball signed by) some soccer players I already know remarkably well after watching them play from three rows behind their bench for eighteen home games, they need an event to meet me. In fact, our relationship would probably have been better without this event at all. Soccer players are not selected for their public presence, and one could easily take offense at their evident reluctance to participate in this strange event, and think that they don't really appreciate the fans. But the truth is that they do appreciate us, and the best way they can express it is the same way they earn our support, by playing, not by addressing us at a microphone. What they're like when they aren't playing is irrelevant. "I don't care what your wife looks like", Jason Narducy snarls in "Fan Club", the opening track to Verbow's debut album Chronicles. But why should he? The strange detail, really, is back at the beginning of the song: "Bought a poster of you half-naked". Why does he care what the singer looks like, either? The relationship is one of player and listener. Or ought to be. Image should never enter into it.
Calling Chronicles a debut album, in truth, is a little misleading. Singer/guitarist Jason Narducy and cellist Alison Chesley, the half of Verbow that isn't its rhythm section, were formerly known as Jason and Alison, under which name they put out a 1994 album called Woodshed, mostly just Jason's blunt acoustic guitar and tense voice and Alison's solemn cello, which I liked a lot. Although the duo's core melodic urges reminded me strongly of the Posies, their songs had none of Stringfellow and Auer's impish ebullience, and the album as a whole was beautiful, but also spare, severe and haunting. Listening to it was a little like being stretched on a rack, but discovering that you couldn't concentrate on the pain because the polished teak of the frame felt so smooth against your back. The pair somehow ended up opening for Bob Mould on his acoustic tour, a fitting juxtaposition in both style and intensity, and in return he produced this album.
The simplest explanation of the results is that Mould misses Sugar, and has decided to turn Verbow into a substitute. Narducy switches to heavily-distorted electric guitars for most of the songs, and Mould processes them into the same indistinct engine-whine roar he uses for his own. Jason's singing voice isn't nearly as nasal as Mould's, and his penchant for breaking the sung lines and the written ones in entirely different places is entirely his own (except where it reminds me of David Steinhart), but buried in the mix like this, in an arrangement already crowded in the mid-range, even Scott Walker would sound a bit like Mould. Mark Doyle, on drums, is fast and sure, and it's not hard to imagine that he knew who Malcolm Travis was even before maybe meeting him at a party. Luke Rothschild contributes solid, unobtrusive bass and fills in on backing vocals, and a lead-vocal/songwriting turn on a b-side would be all the David Barbe comparison needs to be complete. Sugar didn't have a cellist, but Chesley's hum, adding to the band's dense, noisy swirl, is entirely in keeping with Sugar's aesthetic even so. "Fan Club" is menacing and fitful, in the spirit of Beaster. The snappy, surging "The Chronicles of Agent Kidd" and the keening and cathartic "River Wish" are the quick pop songs, successors to Sugar's "A Good Idea" or "Gee Angel". The martial "Man in Mile High", the restrained, cycling "Holiday" and the punchy, sighing "Sugarcone" are slower and less approachable, more like Sugar's "Explode and Make Up" or Mould's "Brasilia Crossed With Trenton" to me. "Down the Gun" sounds like what I imagine a Sugar story-song would have (imagine if the dry levy to which Don McLean drove his Chevy was Sugar's "Hoover Dam"). Anybody pining for Sugar is as likely to derive solace from this as anything short of just playing the old records again. Fans of Woodshed may be initially disappointed by these reversions to a conventional rock arrangement (Jason and Alison didn't need a bassist and drummer, if you ask me, any more than Metropolis needed colorization and Jon Anderson singing "Cage of Freedom"), but "Execution of a Jester", the languid "The Distance Between Us", and the sketchy "Slumbering Blue" all preserve enough of the pair's distinctive minimalism to cushion the blow (and personally, Metropolis without the cheesy Giorgio Moroder score bored me to tears). They even manage a synthesis of sorts between their rended pop and Mould's ferocious blur on "Lethargy's Crown", which remind me a lot of some of the b-side demos for Jason Falkner's Author Unknown.
The resemblance to Sugar fades a bit once you start studying the lyrics. Mould, for all his virtues as a lyricist, is not really a storyteller. His songs are bitter polemics and passionately argued position statements, but they don't tend to have characters, and understanding what words he's singing is usually harder than understanding what he means by them. Narducy's songs tend to be much more narrative and oblique. "Fan Club" could be an answer-song (musically, too) to Jellyfish's "Joining a Fan Club", pointing out that having an idol live out a normal life can be as painful as having one die in a car crash. "The Chronicles of Agent Kidd" is a paranoid spy fantasy. "Man in Mile High", whose chorus ("Lost on the man in mile high") I originally thought was about the Colorado Rapids' attendance woes (only they got 36,000 over the long weekend, so maybe people in Denver just work too much), is really about fame and understanding. "River Wish" is a metaphor twisted in on itself searching for self-awareness. "Holiday" takes a cheerful title and turns it into courted suicide. "Sugarcone", an anthem of the betrayed, is frighteningly calm and composed. And "Down the Gun", a cinematic crime-gone-wrong monologue, could easily be the retroactive soundtrack to Emilio Estevez's film Wisdom (which I liked despite its obvious awkwardness), if somebody decided to give that the Metropolis treatment. If you could somehow merge Ben Folds and Iain Matthews, so that Matthews' sincerity overcame Folds' impervious ironic detachment, and Folds' realism grounded Matthews' romantic flights, you might get lyrics like these.
Radiohead: OK Computer
The howled chorus of "Down the Gun" is actually "Don't wanna owe", but I persist in hearing it as "Don't wanna own". I'm not sure why I'm drawn to this misconception, as I'm not actually ambivalent -- at least not in any way I can tell -- about becoming a homeowner (which happens tomorrow, as I'm writing, and probably has taken place by the time you read this) but it and "All we wanted was a home; / Now we're so strung out we wanna own", from Manic Street Preachers' "Roses in the Hospital", have bookended my search, chronologically, and here at the end of it they ring in my head as if emotional progress relies as much on holding onto what you don't believe as what you do, which it well might. And if this is true, then OK Computer, the third album from Radiohead, is the comprehensive soundtrack to exactly how strung out I don't feel.
Radiohead's first album, Pablo Honey, rode to notoriety and chart exposure on the back of the single "Creep", but the band themselves routinely dismiss it as immature and uneven. I never liked "Creep" much, myself, and it's hard to argue with the "uneven" part, but first albums are allowed to be uneven, and I thought they were actually harder on the record than it deserved. Certainly if I made an album with the neo-Sex Pistols rant "How Do You?", the soaring "Stop Whispering", the poised, acoustic, Wonder Stuff-ish "Thinking About You", the half-Byrds, half-Buzzcocks "Ripcord", the electrocuted-Smiths wail of "I Can't" and the cacophonic "Anyone Can Play Guitar", which supplanted Ultravox's "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" as my favorite end-of-the-world anthem, I hope I'd have the good grace to not complain about it. Still, you'd disclaim Pablo Honey, too, if you knew you had Radiohead's second album, The Bends, in you. On it Radiohead deliberately declined to follow "Creep"'s lead, instead picking up the thread of atmospheric rock grandeur somewhere around where U2 left it when Bono lost his mind, and making a textural record that to me is as bleak and pained as The Joshua Tree is devout and devoted. I go back and forth, from awe to unease, about how much I like the album, but it would be on my short list of genuine musical masterpieces made this decade.
But Radiohead must not have been satisfied with that, either, because OK Computer seems determined to put as much distance between it and The Bends as The Bends did between it and Pablo Honey. The epic, whining, patchwork lead single, "Paranoid Android", is like the evil anti-"Bohemian Rhapsody", a song Wayne and Garth could barely drive to, never mind sing along with. Every instrument in "Airbag" seems to be under a slightly different impression about which part of each measure the accent is supposed to fall on. "Subterranean Homesick Alien" can't decide whether it wants to be a slurred space-jam lament or something borrowed from Echo and the Bunnymen. "Exit Music (For a Film)" sounds like Thom Yorke is slowly losing his mind, about two inches from your left ear. "Karma Police" could be a George Harrison song if it would just cheer up, which it never does. "Fitter Happier", which is performed entirely by a crappy computer speech-synthesizer, sounds like part of an inter-band wager about what it would take to get the average listener to program around something especially irritating rather than just playing the whole disc through. "Electioneering" sounds like your landlord's band-rehearsal nightmare, guitars squalling in all directions to no fixed end. "Climbing Up the Walls" is a dub groove slowly pulling back from the brink of sedation. "No Surprises" would make a good lullaby if it weren't a suicide song gloomy enough to make Morrissey look like RuPaul. "Lucky", Radiohead's track from the Bosnia benefit album Help, is like an abandoned Dave Edmunds song filtered through some combination of Hawkwind, early Pink Floyd and late Talk Talk until it barely clings to life. "The Tourist" asks "Where the hell I'm going? / At 1000 miles an hour", but the song's aimless drift makes the line seem like a mocking joke. Only the gentle, chiming, mid-tempo liturgy of miseries "Let Down" musters the musical enthusiasm to try to recreate something like the eerie beauty of The Bends' "High and Dry" or "Street Spirit (Fade Out)".
What redeems this album, if anything does (and I'm still unsure), is Thom Yorke's unearthly voice, which sounds to me like Jeff Buckley crossed with Johnny Lydon and a little falsetto Jim Morrison, or perhaps like a theremin bolted to a firing Thompson submachine gun. These are some of the most relentlessly depressing songs you'll ever find, but Yorke's evocation of agony and misanthropy does at least capture every nuance of existential resignation. His lyrics, which often seem close to incoherent to me when I read them, take almost all of their sense from his delivery, like moments of cognizance excised from some longer narrative we aren't privy to. Some of the most riveting moments on The Bends, I thought, were when Yorke's voice swooped out of his usual nondescript muttering to spine-tingling soprano wails; on OK Computer he never comes down. This is arresting, but I also find it incredibly wearying. I don't have the strength to feel this much concentrated self-pity for this long. This is music for lying still and hoping it will hurt less if you don't try to fight it, but I've never been very good at lying still. This is an album for finding beauty in giving up, and I'm sure there's beauty to be found there, but a primal urge I wouldn't have thought of before now as survival will keep me buying records until I'm broke, and the ones that try to fight against this urge will be the first ones the new discoveries replace.
Michael Penn: Resigned
The other movie I saw last weekend was Ripe, a coming of age story about two fourteen-year-old sisters trying to figure out where freedom and loyalty have borders. I go to see girls' coming of age stories as a matter of policy, on the grounds that there aren't that many of them, and unlearning a little more ingrained chauvinism is always worth an hour and a half. Ripe is the fourth of a set, to me, with Heavenly Creatures, Fun and All Over Me, all of which center around fiercely insular friendships between teenage girls, and all of whose central pairs have approximately the same dynamic: one plain, gloomy, introspective one who will do anything (including, by the end of the film, something momentous) to keep the girls together, and one pretty, outgoing one who will be drawn by outside forces of one sort or another. Heavenly Creatures and Fun, which are both told in an unconventional mixture of styles (live action and computer animation, in Heavenly Creatures; color and grainy black-and-white and reshuffled time-sequences in Fun), focus on the illusions and realities of the friendships; All Over Me and Ripe, which progress more straightforwardly, concentrate on the tensions holding the relationships together and pulling them apart. All four are tragedies or victories depending on how you balance the experiences you've had against the experiences you won't ever have again. And all four are immeasurably more significant than Batman and Robin.
Girls' coming-of-age stories have nothing to do with Michael Penn, but the other reason I went to see Ripe was that it is the first movie I know made by people I actually took film-making classes with in college. The writer and director, Mo Ogrodnik, and the editor, Sarah Durham, were both in my second-year intermediate course, and Sarah was also in my beginning film-making course the previous year, the one in which we made a documentary about the band Scruffy the Cat, during the editing of which I broke both of my wrists by falling off a ceiling. Barring a massive underground swell of support for Ripe, though the current most famous graduate of Harvard's film-making semi-department will remain Alek Keshishian, the director of the Madonna documentary Truth or Dare and the sappy Harvard/bum morality tale With Honors, who graduated (or, for those of you still preparing for the SAT, was graduated) just before I started. Madonna was married to Sean Penn, and Sean Penn is Michael Penn's brother. So you see, everything really does connect to everything.
Resigned is Michael's third album, and it comes after a five year delay following 1989's debut, March, and 1992's second album, Free-for-All. I liked March a lot, but one of its chief virtues, to me, was Michael's drum programming, which sounded clearly like it was not done by a drummer, and so gave many of the songs an unmistakable individuality in precisely the place where most rock songs sound most generic, and Free-for-All, which featured an impressive array of studio drummers, completely lost this distinction for me. March was odd pop music; Free-for-All lost its way trying to be a rock album instead of a pop one, and loud rather than odd, and ended up none of these.
Resigned has a human drummer, not machines, but it has one drummer throughout, not a host of famous mercenaries, and either Dan McCarroll has an odd rhythmic sense of his own, or else he's working carefully from Penn's notes. "Try" uses a snare shuffle where most songs would stomp on kick pedals. "Like Egypt Was" switches from the verses to the chorus with just a change in articulation, not a roll or a fill. "Out of My Hands"'s snare is the most detailed sound in the song, and the kick and hi-hat are nearly inaudible, letting the snare beat a slow cadence almost by itself. The hi-hats run at double-speed in "All That That Implies", trudge at a retarded pace in "Cover Up" and hiss stiffly in "Comfort". Musically, otherwise, Penn seems to have abandoned Free-for-All's bid to be a noisy rock star, and decided to go back to making the best of his own talents, which I think revolve around brittle, energetic pop songs that trace the bulk of their lineage from the Beatles and Squeeze, but also draw thin lines back to Peter Gabriel, Thomas Dolby and Jules Shear. The anticipated collaboration with Aimee Mann doesn't literally take place, but I bet you could exchange the score for this album with Aimee's I'm With Stupid and never know that Aimee wrote Michael's songs and vice versa. "Try", "Like Egypt Was" and "Comfort" are crisp pop like Aimee's "Long Shot", "Choice in the Matter" or "That's Just What You Are" (or March's "No Myth" or "Bedlam Boys"). "All That That Implies", "Cover Up" and "Figment" are mid-tempo, like Aimee's "All Over Now", "You're With Stupid Now" and "It's Not Safe" (or Michael's "Invisible"). "Out of My Hands", "Small Black Box" and "I Can Tell" are slow and deliberate, like Aimee's "You Could Make a Killing", "Amateur" or "Par for the Course" (or "Battle Room"). And "Me Around" and "Selfish" are even a bit goofy and old-fashioned, like Aimee's "Sugarcoated" and "Superball" (or "Half Harvest" or "Big House" from March). This isn't an album afraid of its own past, or disdainful of its anticipated audience, nor one that tries to lay bare anything flawed in the human soul. It's not one of the answers I've been searching for, nor is it one of the questions. It won't change my life. But some nights I don't need my life changed for me, I'm changing it myself. The music only has to follow behind me, and do something appealing with the air.