July 9, 2012


Mike is currently hibernating until he figures out what to do with his life. Please let sleeping bears lie. To borrow a phrase from twentieth-century English poetry: "He'll be back."

August 20, 2011

7 : blonde on what?

I have a confession: I’ve never been a Bob Dylan fan. Number of Bob Dylan albums I’ve purchased: zero. Prior to this essay, I’ve never even sat down and listened to a Bob Dylan album in its entirety. Sure, I’m familiar with the hits and may not disapprove when a Dylan song crosses my ear path, but any approval I muster is usually silent and accompanied by a shoulder shrug of ambiguity. I mean, what’s the big deal with Bob Dylan? Sure, I am aware that Mr. Dylan is important in the grand scheme of certain things—certain things being 20th century American popular music and rock history—but I’ve always had him filed away in a classic rock canon of stuff I appreciate for its perceived influence and historical value but never actually listen to for enjoyment.

So I’ve never purchased a Dylan album, but I do possess the album Blonde on Blonde and have possessed it for years. It’s technically my dad’s copy and it sat in its sleeve on the shelf with my other records, untouched and unplayed until a few months ago. Why did I have it if I’ve never bothered to listen to it? Well, it’s generally considered a classic album. Once when I told a friend—a real Bob Dylan fan who had been admiring my vinyl copy—that I had never actually listened to the album, he literally fell against the wall in disbelief. I then scrambled for a winning response, saying I’d heard the album, of course I’d heard it, but I just never listened to that copy.

So why did I feel the need to lie about never listening to this album? Who cares, it’s just some classic rock album, big f-ing deal. I guess I felt that admitting that never listening to the supposed masterpiece that is Blonde on Blonde would severely tarnish my cred as a serious, card-carrying music connoisseur. I mean, this was supposedly essential material.

So why the resistance? Why has it taken me so long to give Bob a chance? I’ve boiled it down to three reasons:

Reason #1: A 1960’s hippie/roots rock stigma
I realize now that this is totally wrong and unfair to Dylan, but like a lot of 1960’s/1970’s classic rock, I tended to associate Dylan—and I suppose 60’s rock music in general—with a certain brand of unwashed, Birkenstock-wielding pothead dude dancing in the park while taking clandestine tokes of some serious hydroponic shit out of an oversized Grateful Dead bong. Again, I cannot stress how unfair this is to Dylan.

Also, I had this pre-conceived notion that his music would sound brown—somewhere in between a burnt sienna and a nice shit brown—and dusty, like an old western film. I know that sounds strange, but that’s the best way I can describe it. And like an old western film, the thought of sitting down and listening to a Bob Dylan record provoked in me a feeling of resigned boredom. I pegged it as safe, tasteful folksy roots music, overplayed and cliché 60’s protest music, dull and sonically unadventurous bar-band blues rock, and/or baby boomer nostalgia soundtrack. Flat, brown and dusty, musty tunes for family picnics. Golden oldies for the middle-aged. Background outdoor festival music. Bob Dylan Matthews Band. In other words, kind of boring.

Reason #2: The issue of generational ownership
Bob Dylan is my dad’s music. Sure, I could appreciate and enjoy it, possibly even love it, but it would never ‘belong’ to me. Nirvana was ‘mine’. Radiohead is ‘mine’. Granted, Bob Dylan is still around and has remained sort of relevant, but Dylan came of age in an earlier era, well before I was born. He had his earliest peak in the 1960’s and his greatest contribution to modern music (and most popular songs) stems from that time period. That music sounds like the 60’s. That isn’t a bad thing necessarily, but I have to admit it’s something that had kept me from truly connecting to the music.

Reason #3: The “Clapton is God” syndrome (a.k.a. Beatlemania disease)
In the school of rock, it is customary for serious students to acknowledge Bob Dylan’s importance, and I’ve never actively denied that importance. However, there is a certain threshold of universal praise and hype that often gets crossed with artists like Dylan (i.e. baby boomer rock icons). There are only so many times you can hear about how the Beatles are ‘the greatest band of all time’ or how the Rolling Stones are ‘the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band’ before the eyes glaze over and a jaded annoyance sets in that essentially dooms any chance of enjoying the music of either band on its own merits. I hated the Stones for years because of this. I think Dylan suffers a bit from this sort of overzealous canonization.

Speaking of praise and hype, Dylan is pretty much universally lauded for his songwriting. More specifically, he’s praised for his lyrics, which are often compared to high-grade poetry. Those kinds of comparisons tend to make me yawn and, as a person who has played music and written songs, I know that writing a song is not the same thing as just writing lyrics. Lyrics are just words, and a song is a combination of those words and instrumentation and usually things like melody into an arrangement of sound. While Dylan’s lyrics may be great—and I’ll admit that they often are—you need more than great lyrics to write and produce a great song.

So some questions I wanted to answer were: Are the songs themselves compelling regardless of the alleged lyrical brilliance? Are they sonically interesting? Are they melodically interesting? Do the lyrics, instrumentation and Dylan’s voice combine into something greater than the sum of their parts? Will it all just be kind of boring?

I decided it was high time to expand my knowledge.1 This was the project. So I borrowed my dad’s dusty, tattered collection of Bob Dylan records—a greatest hits collection, an impressive chronological run of five 1960’s classics, and one from 1975—and fired up the turntable for a few days of intense listening.2

I began with Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits Vol. 1, since I was familiar with most of these songs and I figured it was an easy way into his discography. Immediately, revelations occurred. I realized that I’d never heard Dylan’s version of his own song “Mr. Tambourine Man”; I’d only heard the Byrds’ (and William Shatner’s) version. I’ve always known it was a Dylan song, and I think that fooled me into thinking I’d heard his version. 

The electric guitar countermelody bouncing pleasantly under that song is quite intoxicating, and already I sensed that these early stripped-down acoustic songs were going to win me over with little effort. I mean, “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’” are two of the most ubiquitous, overplayed and over-referenced 60’s folk protest songs, and I didn’t find them boring in the least. They sounded fantastic, in fact. The songs seemed to come alive in the private setting of my kitchen—where all of this listening took place—as opposed to the more communal listening experience that these songs were probably kind of designed for.

The melody of “Positively 4th Street” stuck in my head for days, sounding so breezy and easygoing that it took me several listens before I realized the song is an angry diss to former friends. The only sort-of clunker was “Just Like A Woman”, which is hard for me to hear and not think of that scene in Annie Hall when Shelley Duvall dreamily recites the main refrain while Woody Allen disdainfully rolls his eyes. I have to admit that it’s not one of Dylan’s best songs and that lyrical refrain does have an irksome quality. Still, Dylan’s sense of melody and cadence—something I never gave much attention before—imbues even that song with a catchy quality. It’s no surprise that these were hits.3

Bring It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited were my immediate favorites of his proper albums, and I was compelled to go back to them for several repeat listens. These are where a raw, bluesy, mono-record clatter truly comes to the fore.4 I love the hard split between electric and acoustic sides; the idea of an album being split into sides being one of the vinyl record’s most brilliant characteristics. 

The acoustic side of Bring It All Back Home, in particular, had a power that surprised me. “Power” is a good term. Acoustic folk music can easily go twee and delicate, but there is a raw, unpolished timbre and visceral oomph to this music that gives it some muscle.

“Like a Rolling Stone”—certainly the most well-known and influential track from Highway 61 Revisited—is a song I’ve heard maybe 39 times but never really listened to with any depth. Plus, the prominent organ in it was something that I actually kind of hated before. Throughout my adolescence and twenties, the electric organ in rock songs always struck me as having a cheesy quality, like the sound of saxophone in the 1980’s. I think differently now, and that organ is key to the song’s traveling caravan-esque vibe. “Ballad of the Thin Man” and “Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues” were other favorites, the latter of which I recognized for its sampled use in a Beastie Boys song.

Okay, Blonde on Blonde. The big one. Supposed double-album masterpiece. It begins with a song that has a lot going against it in regards to winning me over. “Rainy Day Women #12 & #35”—with its famous refrain that has been shouted countless times in dorm rooms and frat houses and probably the homeless shelter in Haight-Ashbury—has the stigma of being a worn-out stoner anthem but revealed itself to be an amusingly warped romp. Dylan’s delivery of that refrain, although obviously meant to be a double entendre, nevertheless reeks of some serious hydroponic grade-A authenticity.

I more or less enjoyed the rest of Blonde on Blonde. It has a sprawling grandeur that I certainly appreciate, but I have to admit it didn’t quite grab me as much as I expected. Perhaps that was the problem; I expected little from the earlier records and got a lot, while I expected a lot from this one and it was, dare I admit it, a smidge of a let down. Still, it’s obviously meant to be a slow burner so I may return to it for further study.

The next two records were the relatively modest records John Wesley Harding and Nashville Skyline. John Wesley Harding provided yet another case of a Dylan song (“All Along the Watchtower”) famously covered (by Jimi Hendrix) that I don’t think I had heard in its original form. That record lacks some of the immediacy of the earlier records but started to grow on me after a handful of listens. An okay, solid record.

On Nashville Skyline, I was initially taken aback at how different it sounds from the others. I had read—via Wikipedia—that this was Dylan’s foray into pure country music, which didn’t sound like that huge of a stretch on paper. This truly is full-blown mid-century country music in all its crooning, galloping pedal steel glory. It also has the song “Lay Lady Lay”, a hit that I never liked that much and frankly sounds almost like a novelty song. This was also my least favorite album of the bunch, but it showed Dylan’s willingness to change shape and form in uncompromising ways and I respect that quality in an artist.

The final record: Desire.5 Released in 1975, this album includes the song “Hurricane”, which was prominently featured in a scene in the 1993 film Dazed and Confused and is perhaps the first Dylan song I actively liked and even played on a jukebox occasionally. This song always had a certain drive that I perceived as missing from other Dylan songs (yet another flawed perception, I’ll admit now). It’s a bit odd comparing this record to the more raggedy 60’s albums, as the album possesses the rich, polished sheen of 70’s AOR production and is a completely different animal. This was also fairly solid, I think, but I think listening fatigue was setting in at this point so “Hurricane” is the only song that really stuck in my head. The violin player on this record kicks some serious hydroponic derriere, however.

So what have I learned from all of this? For starters, I’m a fool, but I realized that this whole Bob Dylan project wasn’t really about Bob Dylan; ultimately, it was about me. It wasn’t about questioning whether or not the general cultural consensus regarding Bob Dylan is right; it was about proving myself—that less than likable part of myself that jumps to conclusions and pigeonholes and judges and stereotypes and has pre-conceived notions and needs to be punched sometimes—totally fucking wrong.

I’m happy to say that the goal has been achieved: I was totally fucking wrong about Bob Dylan. His music is not sonically dull or hippy-dippy roots music or safe or tasteful or anything of the sort. As an artist, he's a shape-shifting one who does what he wants and isn't afraid to fail, and those are my favorite kind. I finally get it now. My earlier statement about not really being a Dylan fan is no longer accurate, and now I actually want to listen to Bob Dylan's music for dare I say actual enjoyment. I should do this more often. What’s next?

1 I began working on this Bob Dylan listening project and essay just as the hoopla surrounding Dylan’s 70th birthday was in full effect back in May. This was pure serendipity. If I weren’t such a slow ass, this would have been finished on his actual birthday.

2 The entirety of my dad’s record collection sat haphazardly piled in two tall stacks within a open, wood-paneled cubby hole in the corner of my parents’ basement. I grew up in this house, and there’s a bit of something to be said about finally exploring the nature of artifacts that sat within an arm’s length throughout my entire childhood. It’s like finding a cigar box of old baseball cards under the floorboards in your old room and discovering that they, uh, play music. Or something like that.

3 The song “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” was not included here, which was a bummer because it was one of the two Dylan songs—the other being “Hurricane”—that I genuinely liked on a personal enjoyment level even previous to this project/essay.

4 The earlier four of these records were “mono” recordings and the later three were “stereo”. Now I know this is audiophile territory and ‘normal’ people won’t notice much if any difference in the sound, but my discerning ear does find the “mono” records to be more appealing in a way that’s hard to explain. There’s a rough and intimate quality, especially when playing the records on my portable suitcase player in the kitchen. The sound is appealingly cramped, with all voice and instruments blending together into a soulful clatter. Apparently, “mono” is the way these early records were recorded, so they are apparently meant to be heard that way according to many audiophiles and rock historians. I really have no technical authority to argue that point one way or the other, so I guess I’m sold on that.

5 Yes, I do realize I’ve omitted Blood on the Tracks, which is generally considered to be one of Dylan’s greatest works. Three reasons for this: 1. It was not to be found in my dad’s record collection. 2. I liked the idea of listening only to the records chosen by a true, was-there-at-the-time Dylan fan (i.e. my dad), meaning that: 3. This had to be a vinyl-only affair to maintain authenticity (i.e. listening to the records in their original format i.e. the way they were ‘meant’ to be heard) so I couldn't resort to a digital copy.

June 9, 2011

6 : almost infinite summer

Okay, I’m ready to begin again. Begin what, you ask? Everything, including this blog. I’m feeling optimistic and inspired. It’s not quite summer yet, but I’m already feeling the vibes.* This scorching heat wave we’re experiencing is ominous, however, and the last remaining days of spring have wilted into a sad, shriveled clump of brown plant corpse. Nevertheless, there is an indefinable spiritual buoyancy that emerges in the summer climate, even during the heat waves. Perhaps it’s simply the absence of winter. Perhaps it is due to the fact that, even at 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the temp is much closer to our natural body heat compared to the sub-zero Celsius frost of winter and damp, layered-sweatshirt chill of Northwest Indiana spring.

All of this warmth and buoyancy has complimented the continuous rotation of Fleet Foxes songs emanating from whatever music-playing device is on hand. Their music has been a unifying force in our household, as even my five-year-old daughter loves it despite her self-proclaimed preference for “girl songs” (note: Fleet Foxes is all men). Their new album Helplessness Blues, with its rich tapestry of melody and harmony and pastoral beauty, has been keeping the spirits alive and kicking throughout the usual tedium of daily routine. See/hear below.

Vocal harmonies have been on my mind lately and there does seem to be an inherent summery quality to them. The so-called ‘California Sound’ of the late 1960s/1970s—Beach Boys, Fleetwood Mac, America, even the frickin' Eagles—evokes a curious sense of tingly seasonal nostalgia in me even though I was either yet-to-be-conceived or barely a toddler when that music was released. Classic rock radio broadcasting from my dad’s ’78 Ford Thunderbird stereo back when I was around half a decade old surely played a part in provoking this nostalgic response.

The Midwestern fantasy of California as a magical land of summer cheer has persisted since I was quite young: scenes of warm southern California beaches, azul skies and cotton white clouds, surfboards and neon yellow swimwear, that orange 1970s haze you see in old photographs coloring the air like ocean spray, a sandy blond dream soundtracked by the crackle of scanning FM radio waves. I combine all of those audio/visuals with assorted postcard visions of northern California forests, all rich redwood and lush green foliage rustling, a pastoral landscape ripe with living-off-the-land idealism. All of this is evoked in the sound of those ‘California’ bands.† Amusingly, I’m almost certain that I first heard most of that music in our family doctor’s office waiting room, circa 1980-1984, so scenes of sitting on sticky vinyl chairs and reading Highlights magazine insert themselves in this summer fantasy Viewmaster session.

Speaking of pastoral landscapes, an impending trip to the remote Irish countryside and the uninterrupted technological blackout—no cell phone, no computer, no TV—it entails, in addition to two glorious, humming 8-hour flights of beverage-and-snack-provided luxury, has presented an opportunity to belatedly begin my participation in a summer reading challenge: reading David Foster Wallace’s mammoth Infinite Jest.

A short history of my relationship with David Foster Wallace and Infinite Jest: I purchased Infinite Jest, encouraged by repeated namedrops in the music magazines I read as well as its general notoriety among young collegians, at Caveat Emptor in Bloomington IN, probably around 1998 or 1999. This 1,079-page magnum opus sat on my bookshelf until around 2001, when I foolishly attempted it as a bedtime read, got about 30 pages or so into it before my weak attention span waned. It wasn’t terribly difficult reading, but it was and is way too intellectually rich and intense for bedtime. Bedtime reading should be light, and nothing about this book could be described as light. Even its physical weight was a problem; it was too heavy and uncomfortable to hold while lying down. No, this was something that not only required real attention, it deserved it, and I just wasn’t willing to give it at the time.

I’m ashamed to say that thoughts of DFW and Infinite Jest remained dormant until hearing about his death in 2008. I came across some of his nonfiction online and it instantly, as Wallace might say, rung a cherry in me. I began exploring his oeuvre and anything related to him. I started with Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, which is author David Lipsky’s book-length road trip interview with Wallace, just to get to know him a little bit. This was followed by the DFW books Brief Interviews with Hideous Men and Consider the Lobster, the latter a brilliantly versatile essay collection. I’ve nearly completed his other nonfiction book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again and have his first short story collection Girl with Curious Hair in my queue. I recommend any of these as primers before tackling Infinite Jest.

At the risk of sounding presumptuous, I get Wallace. He has a mind that you can tell is almost superhumanly powerful with intelligence and insight, yet his voice comes across as warm, humble, self-deprecating and LOL-level funny. I’ve yet to find anything pretentious or ‘academic’ about his writing, even while reading a 62-page essay on linguistics and grammar.** He’s become my absolute favorite writer, especially for his nonfiction, and I now feel it’s time to tackle the beast on the bookshelf.

I was batting around the idea of reading Infinite Jest as a summer challenge seemingly moments before I serendipitously discovered that an actual Infinite Jest summer reading challenge existed and was conducted in 2009. There’s even a website for it here. Naturally, this sealed the deal on my decision. I’ve already got my dual bookmarks—a Flash postcard for the main story and an old Northwest Airlines boarding pass from 2003 for the endnotes, both of which I felt were appropriate for some reason—placed in position and ready for battle.

My progress on the book may or may not be documented here. Frankly, I’d rather spend that precious time reading than writing about reading, but we’ll see. I’ll most certainly post something when I finish it. 75 pages per week! That doesn’t sound like a terribly large number, but these are David Foster Wallace pages. With several hundred footnotes (which often contain some of his funniest and most endearing writing). Again, I don't expect it to be horribly difficult reading, just too rich and challenging and rewarding and intense and funny and way too deserving of my undivided attention to skim through lightly. See you on the other side (of the book, that is).

* I find it embarrassingly and pathetically lame that updates on this blog have been arriving at such a glacial pace that a mere two posts ago I was praising the summer vibes of last year. Poor show, Mike. Poor show, indeed.

† Yes, I am well versed enough in rock history to know that a lot of these ‘California’ bands are not actually from California. I’m talking about vibes, not literal facts. Their music feels like California, at least on a surface level.

** This essay, from Consider the Lobster, was preceded by an extremely entertaining journalism piece covering the AVN awards, which is the adult film industry’s version of the Oscars.

January 25, 2011

5 : the neverending present

And it begins again. The frozen tundra of Northwest Indiana in January and the subsequent ‘isolated-in-a-cabin’ mentality that comes with it has inspired me to stoke my little burning embers of creativity into a raging bonfire. Grey, oppressive environments can do that sort of thing. They can also drive you to become an alcoholic, but we’re working with the bright side here. Also, as a mental health therapist would attest, I seem to have a lot to write about. Like John Cusack’s character Rob Gordon in High Fidelity, I seem to be going through one of those ‘what-does-it-all-mean’ kind of things, and have been for quite some time. Consequently, I’ve also become that which I once feared that I might one day become: The Guy Talking About the Good Old Days.

What Does It All Mean? The question is eternal. It's consoling to know that these twin syndromes of What Does It All Mean and Talking About the Good Old Days seem to have infected many of my peers in their thirties. My personal Good Old Days period reaches back as far as the early 1990's (check me out above, circa 1994). Until recently, I’ve always considered the 1990's—a decade that encompassed my late adolescence/early twenties—to be catagorized as the recent past. There is an urge to say things like that decade seems like it was 'yesterday'. The truth: The 1990's are a long fucking time ago. Ancient history. That era only seems like 'yesterday' because my memory of it is clear and lucid, and the ability to have clarity and lucidity in memory is symptomatic of adulthood. This has the peculiar effect of making everything that happens during adulthood feel like it's part of some rambling, neverending present.

I've always thought of time and personal history as a very long book printed in very small type on a single sheet of paper that is folded like an accordion. Twenty years ago may seem like 'yesterday', but when folded out to reveal all that has occurred in those twenty years—the stuff that hides down in the folds—it can seem more like a million. The early 1990's feels like a hundred million years ago. And let's not confuse nostalgia and reminiscence with an actual desire to 'go back' and relive those Good Old Days. You couldn't pay me to go back to all that teenage insecurity and adult-onset anxiety. Nostalgia filters these things out (mostly), and that’s for the best. It allows for warmer and more endearing stories. And more laughs.

Speaking of nostalgia and in accordance with the 20-year cycle of pop cultural revivals (1980's=60's revival, 1990's=70's revival, 2000's=1980's revival, etc.), we should now be flying the retro-flag for the pop culture of the early 90's. A friend of mine pointed out that we’re probably still hovering around the late 1980’s (somewhere between 1987 and 1990). With the proliferation of Cosby sweaters (such as the one I'm wearing in the photo above, circa 1989), shoulder-padded blazers, sequined blouses and purple/teal Air Jordans I’ve seen adorning urban hipsters in their 20’s, this seems pretty right on. I mean, look at this recent album cover*:

That 20-year cycle may not be entirely precise, but it is surprisingly consistent. Perhaps in September—when Nirvana's Nevermind hits the 20-year mark—the full-on grunge/alt-rock/combat boot/unwashed hair revival will kick into high gear, which will be kind of weird.

So What Does It All Mean?** History, time and cultural revivals are such curious beasts. What will we call the Roaring Twenties in the 2020’s? Will there be a 1970’s rock renaissance in the 2070’s, where it will be like a retro-futuristic Dazed and Confused with magnetically propelled flying muscle cars and teenagers rocking out to the classic rock of the 1990's or 2010's or 2050's in their cerebrally implanted iPods? I’ll be nearly 100 years old then. Will I be rocking a cyborg body? And will I finally get an answer to that eternal question?

*No offense to this band Tennis—I know nothing of their music—but this cover is practically pulsating with the late 80's aesthetic.

**Answers to that question may be one or more of the following:
a. nothing
b. whatever you want it to mean
c. this is a ridiculous, unanswerable question so just grab a beer/cup of tea/Arby’s Jamocha shake/beverage of your choice and chill
d. life is a box of melted vegan chocolates that may not actually be vegan or even vegetarian
e. all of the above

July 16, 2010

4 : team aquaman

Ah, summer. Familiar sensations are in the air: the smoky aroma of barbeque grills, the noise of lawnmowers and air conditioning units, the warped musical repetition of the ice cream truck. It's all sunshine and swimming pools by day and cold beers and bloodsucking mosquitoes by night. And it is good. Well, except for those pesky bloodsuckers.

Speaking of bloodsucking mosquitoes, all of the nonsense this summer about Team Edward and the Amazing Vampire Hair Gel vs. Team Werewolf Nipples in the movie Twilight: Teen Wolf 2 at Hot Topic on Goth Day or whatever has inspired me to come up with my own team, one that truly reflects the spirit of the season: Team Aquaman.

Confession: In the summer, I often pretend that I’m Aquaman whenever I go swimming, especially in natural bodies of water like lakes. Submerged with open eyes in the blue-green, pleasantly non-chlorinated blur of Lake Michigan, I fantasize that I am Aquaman, telepathically summoning schools of blue gill and walleyes. As a kid, swimming at the YMCA or sitting at the bottom of my parents’ backyard pool in 1989, struggling silently to hold my breath for 60 seconds, I was always Aquaman.

Needless to say, I love Aquaman. Unfortunately, Aquaman gets a lot of shit. It’s even says so in his Wikipedia entry:

“In pop culture, Aquaman has frequently been the subject of mockery for his distinctive powers, which are often comically portrayed as useless in comparison to those of other superheroes.”

Useless powers? Please. Being able to breathe underwater and communicate telepathically with sea creatures is on my short list of powers that would not only be extremely useful in the real world, but also extremely awesome. Perhaps not in a fighting-crime-and-beating-up-villains capacity, but useful in having the potential to both initiate positive change in the world and have an incredible amount of fun.

Super-strength and heat vision? Flight? Super-speed? Teleportation? Metal blades popping out of your hands? All of those powers would be pretty scary, dangerous, potentially lethal and/or psychologically disturbing in real life. Aquaman's powers, however, are safe and nonviolent. His contributions to marine science would be incalculable. And being able to pal around with great white sharks and command whales and colossal squids to, you know, do stuff possesses a pretty significant cool factor. Plus, buff swimmer's body.

So you see, Aquaman needs a solid team of forward-thinking aficionados to champion his rightful place in the pantheon of iconic heroes. Here’s to you, Aquaman. Even if the world at large doesn’t appreciate your awesomeness and the criminally and eternally adolescent herds of conservative macho geek fandomites seem to enjoy belittling you and limiting your pop cultural esteem, you will always be on the A-list in my book, and not just alphabetically speaking. You are the kind of superhero the world could really use right now. You’re the spirit superhero of the month. So the question is: Are you on Team Aquaman?

April 23, 2010

3 : jukebox hero

I love jukeboxes, but not faux jukeboxes that try to appeal to some nostalgic love of the real thing (like the one pictured above). No, real jukeboxes. If you love jukeboxes as well and can't resist inserting your hard earned cash into these little towers of musical power, then here’s a question: Do you want to be a jukebox hero or a jukebox zero? Well, listen carefully and some secrets of jukebox heroism will be revealed to you.

There are three kinds of jukeboxes: good, bad and Internet ones. The good ones are the rarest of beasts. They require someone—most likely the owner of the place—to have both exquisite taste and the ability to perceive what their patrons will enjoy listening to in whatever setting their establishment is trying to provide. You could play anything and it works. Everybody wins. Unfortunately, I can count the number of times in my life that I’ve encountered a jukebox like this on one hand.

The bad jukeboxes are, well, just bad. They tend to be chock full of bland, commercial pap—often lots of slick, modern country and teen pop mixed in with the usual classic rock, oldies and the ever-ubiquitous Dave Matthews Band. Not necessarily all bad songs, but a very predictable and mechanically selected playlist. The discerning music listener will probably shrug their shoulders and end up playing a Johnny Cash song or something by the Kinks—just to play something— and end up walking away from the jukebox feeling vaguely disappointed.

Oddly enough, the bad jukeboxes aren’t even the most common ones anymore. That would be the Internet jukebox. Purists would argue that these aren’t really jukeboxes, just glorified iPods. It’s a valid point, but—although I run the risk of contradicting my earlier statement about faux jukes—I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. In fact, I often wish they were even more like an iPod. My iPod, specifically.

The “Super Search” function is what distinguishes the Internet jukebox from its traditional siblings. Being able to download deep cuts from a Radiohead album—for an additional cost, of course—is pretty awesome. And the surprise of finding that My Bloody Valentine’s entire catalog is available to play on the same jukebox that has three Jackyl albums in the regular rotation is, needless to say, a wonderful thing.

So if you encounter the Internet jukebox, here are some tips, suggestions and personal musical philosophies* that may assist you on your path to jukebox heroism:

If you’re the first person to play the jukebox, I always feel it’s best to start with something you’re confident will be appreciated by the crowd or at least “appropriate” for the setting. Play it safe with your first choice. It’s the musical equivalent of buying a round of shots for the whole bar.

1. Johnny Cash : “Ring of Fire”
2. The White Stripes : any song, but I recommend “Icky Thump”
3. The Cure : “Just Like Heaven”
4. Prince : “Dirty Mind”
5. James Brown : “The Payback”

As great as they are, short-song bands like the Ramones are not the most economic choices on a jukebox. These songs will really stretch your dollar. “Marquee Moon” is a strong contender for best in show for jukebox songs, in my opinion. It’s ten minutes long, brilliant, cool, sounds great in a bar setting and I can’t imagine anyone disliking it even if they’re unfamiliar with it, so play it!

1. Television : “Marquee Moon”
2. Radiohead : “Paranoid Android”
3. John Coltrane : “Blue Train”
4. Led Zeppelin : “In My Time of Dying”
5. LCD Soundsystem : “All My Friends”

To paraphrase what John Cusack’s character in High Fidelity says in regards to mixtapes: you gotta start off with a killer, then you have to bring it up a notch. These songs are sure to kick-start the atmosphere.

1. Phoenix : “1901” or “Lisztomania”
2. Daft Punk : “One More Time”
3. TV on the Radio : “Wolf Like Me”
4. Outkast : “B.O.B.”
5. Jay-Z : “Big Pimpin’”

Once in the wee hours at a bar, some girl complained about the music I was playing. She asked me why I would play those songs at a bar and didn’t I want to “rock out”? Call me a geezer but no, I don’t really want to “rock out” at 2:45 in the morning. So refuse to "rock out" with these chill end songs for the late evening/early morning.

1. Jesus and Mary Chain : “Just Like Honey”
2. Portishead : “Glory Box”
3. Sly and the Family Stone : “Family Affair”
4. The Velvet Underground : “Pale Blue Eyes”
5. Billie Holiday : “Strange Fruit”

Obviously, the difference between “good” and “bad” songs is highly subjective, so this list of songs not to play is more of a friendly request than a definitive mandate. Wait, scratch that. This is a mandate. With the exception of my “Most Bang for Your Buck” picks, you should generally avoid selecting 10-15 minute songs that can be boring and/or annoying, songs that you might hear at an Ultimate Fighting Championship match and encourage aggression, and anything that conjures up images of brooding young dudes wearing backwards baseball caps, closing their eyes and really “feeling the music”.

1. Any 15-minute Grateful Dead “jam” song.
2. Meat Loaf : “I Would Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That)”
3. Any rap metal
4. Dave Matthews Band : “Crash”
5. Ballads from Hollywood movie soundtracks

*These choices are all based on my experience with a typical Internet jukebox, which tends to not include anything too obscure or indie, even when you search. Obviously, all of these selections skew to my personal taste but you probably guessed that already. This is okay because I have excellent taste. Also, do you like my goofy ass album cover collage?

March 19, 2010

2 : a brief history of coffee

Coffee is one of the greatest inventions in the history of humankind. Here’s a timeline of java-themed moments in my life that I’ve put together just for fun:

1981: My long, blissful relationship with coffee begins. I was five. Now I know what you’re thinking. A coffee-drinking five-year-old? Isn’t that ill advised for a variety of reasons? Would you say that secretly giving a can of Old Style to a five-year-old at a family picnic is ill advised as well? Really, you would? Well, aren’t you just a big ball of no fun.

1981-1994: I would drink coffee on and off throughout my childhood—with lots of sugar and lots of cream, of course—and I probably began drinking it in the morning on a daily basis when I was in high school. And always at family functions. It seemed to be a Northwest Indiana working class family tradition to gather at the kitchen table with coffee and sweet rolls and chat, and I think being able to participate in that conversation was a huge part of why I wanted to drink coffee in the first place. I probably learned a lot at those gatherings.

Fall 1994: My freshman year of college was when coffee began to serve mostly as a functional tool for staying up late to study for exams and write papers. It was a mental steroid, so to speak. There was no real appreciation of the aesthetics. Hence, we drank lots of cheap, over-brewed sludge.

Fall 1995: My friends and I discover the Descendents, an 80’s suburban California pop-punk band who actually wrote songs about coffee. Mix that with the retro-beatnik/coffeehouse culture of the 90’s and drinking coffee suddenly became a youth cultural accessory, like dying your hair blue or getting a tattoo. It became a lifestyle choice. We would make pots of coffee in our dorm room and drink ten cups each while chain smoking. No wonder I have acid reflux issues now.

Spring 1996: A brief story. Once I offered some coffee to some acquaintance of a friend and she replied with something along the lines of “I protest against coffee companies that exploit children and workers in South America”. I took that as a “no”. This was years before the term “fair trade” had entered the general vocabulary. Despite her perhaps ill manners, I respected her stance even as I enjoyed my cup. Plus, she was kind of cute, if I recall. Nowadays, I try to buy fair trade coffee whenever I can. That’s completely unrelated to this incident, however.

1996: This is where the era of diner coffee truly begins. The coffeehouse culture of the 90’s was slow developing in NWI—this was a bit before Starbucks or Borders really existed as coffee destinations—so our “coffeehouses” were either Dunkin Donuts, Greek restaurants or diners. Round the Clock. The Steer. The Wheel. Hessville Restaurant. Hours upon hours of coffee guzzling, chain smoking and serious, important late adolescent conversation took place in these hallowed establishments. Occasionally, someone ordered a bagel, too.

Summer 1996: When I arrived at work at the Tri-City Mental Health Center one morning, I came this close to drinking some already terrible coffee sludge that had been accidentally brewing all night. Seriously, this close.

Spring 1998: A couple of years later, my friends and I were watching an episode of the show Dr. Katz and Dr. Katz’s son Ben summed up the appeal of coffee in one brilliant statement. I paraphrase: “When I drink coffee, I feel like I’m doing something with my life.” That’s so brilliant! The alertness and charge you get from a cup of joe really makes you feel like you’re doing something even when you’re not. And if you actually are doing something productive, it’s even better! Why do you think I’m drinking coffee right now while I speak! Exclamation points! Exclamation points!

Summer 1998: The summer of The Coffee Party. It started out as kind of a joke, but soon developed into a full-fledged social experiment. Could a party be maintained and fun without alcohol or any other substances other than coffee? Could we all get “ripped” on just caffeine? Would the neighbors call the cops on a bunch of jittery college students talking rapidly and playing board games in a basement apartment? Should there be cherry Danishes? Yes. There should be cherry Danishes, and there were. Surprisingly, the party was a success! A lot of people—for us, that meant about ten—showed up. And with the exception of one friend who brought some Baileys to mix with his coffee, we all really did get ripped on only coffee. We never repeated this experiment, and subsequently returned to more traditional party beverages. Nevertheless, I always feel a bit proud that I pulled this off.

Summer 2001-Fall 2002: This began as perhaps the low point in my personal history of coffee. I was unemployed and became so lazy that I started drinking instant coffee (gasp!). All interest in coffee aesthetics seemed to be lost. I found salvation, thankfully, when I took a job at Caribou Coffee. Learning how to make a triple soy cappuccino and being able to try varieties of freshly ground coffee was an eye opener, literally, figuratively. It was during this time when I began grinding fresh beans at home.

2008: A few years later, when I was working from home at our house in Hammond, the unthinkable happened one morning. Our coffeemaker broke. While I was probably preparing to grind up some beans and snort them off of a mirror with a rolled up dollar bill, my wife made the brilliant suggestion of trying the old French press that she had hidden away in the tea cabinet. So, after a little bit of Internet research and still not really knowing exactly what I was doing, I concocted a cup of coffee using a French press for the very first time. Hands down, it was the best cup of coffee I had ever had in my life. Since then, I rarely use the old drip machine.

Today: Coffee is a truly beautiful thing and one of the many great pleasures I’ve found in life. While I’m certainly no longer the unhealthy coffee guzzler I was in my youth, I do enjoy two fine cups a day of freshly ground goodness and remain quite curious and enthusiastic about trying different beans. Recently, I even had a bag of the famed Jamaican Blue Mountain, essentially the Rolls Royce of coffee beans at $50 a bag. Hawaiian Kona and Ethiopian Yirgacheffe are great ones as well. Mmm…I think I want a hot mug right now.

March 8, 2010

1 : kindling a bookfire (does physical matter?)

A few weeks ago, I did something I hadn’t done in over two years. I bought a CD. Remember CD’s? Yes, those overpriced little plastic discs that played music that people bought in abundance up until a few years ago. Although I’ve been buying music exclusively on iTunes for some time now, I had decided to ceremoniously bid farewell to the CD era with one final purchase. I trekked out to Borders, bought a cappuccino, and browsed through their once mighty but now quite sad little music section. My farewell choice: Radiohead’s In Rainbows. Oh, what a clever choice! Those in the music loop know all about that record’s famous “pay-what-you-want” digital release back in 2007 before it was released on CD, a move that seemed to simultaneously embrace and lampoon the mp3 era of music downloading. I already owned this album, of course. However, I felt I owed it to the record—it being one of my all-time favorites—to obtain a proper copy of it.

But what exactly is a “proper copy”? I pondered this as I stood in line to purchase my relic. As I looked around at all the usual bookstore activity, another question popped into my head: Is Borders losing it? For a big corporate retail chain, Borders always possessed a warm, inviting charm and an atmosphere of genuine culture and community. Ten years ago, I remember it as a bustling epicenter of social activity that attracted all the cool, young hipsters of Northwest Indiana. Maybe I was only imagining there was something amiss. After all, the place was still fairly bustling on a Saturday morning. Still, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the store, if it were a person, would have the look on its face of someone who just found his or her first spot of thinning hair.

Everyone knows that record stores and now video stores are dying dinosaurs. Hell, outside of the connoisseur’s (read: music nerd’s) niche market, record stores have been dead for some time. I don’t think it comes as a surprise when I say 100% of the blame for this falls on the Internet. Let’s face it, buying music/movies digitally is cheaper, more convenient and the selection is virtually limitless. Since it eschews packaging, you could even say it’s greener. Now, with the advent of the Kindle and the e-books industry, another industry faces an uncertain future. Will bookstores eventually suffer the same dismal fate as the record/video store?

Ah, the Kindle. I’ve seen the device and I have to admit that it seems pretty nice for what it is. It is designed well and seems pleasantly functional. What I’m not impressed with is its function. What is its function? What does it really achieve? Does it really improve upon the traditional experience of reading a physical book? Is it more convenient? More portable than a book? Does reading text on a little screen have an aesthetic pleasure of which I’m unaware? Is having thousands of books at your instant disposal really that useful for the average person? Will there be e-book clubs of super-readers who will read and discuss several books at once? Will print actually, finally die? Will this be the end of all physical media and the universe as we know it?

I don’t mean to single out the Kindle. I’m really just referring to the whole concept of the e-book. With music and film, the digital switch made sense. There was never any particular aesthetic pleasure to putting on a CD or DVD. Unlike the classic act of dropping a needle on a big, beautiful vinyl record or hearing the unmistakable whir of a film projector, you were just putting a piece of plastic on a plastic tray and pressing a plastic button. And I’m sure many fellow music buffs have fond memories of lugging around those big black cumbersome CD books and glitch-y Discmans that ran out of juice in mere hours. Reading a book, however, is a timeless, universal act that has been enjoyed for centuries, and books have been ingrained in our culture for a hell of a lot longer than CD’s or DVD’s. You can tell by their smell.

Anyone who’s walked into an old and used bookstore—the kind with the earthy, bespectacled man or woman captaining the register—knows that crusty, mildew smell. I know it well because of what I can only guess is some sort of weird allergic reaction—due to my allergies to mold—that I have within minutes upon entering those stores. The smell strangely causes me to have, shall we say, acute intestinal distress. I can’t imagine that anything I would ever experience in the virtual, e-book world would cause such a visceral reaction.

This very comparison—physical books vs. virtual information—was brought up in an 12-year-old episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer, an old favorite series that I’ve recently been revisiting. The ever-wise librarian Mr. Giles points out that books smell and that smell is one of the strongest triggers of memory. This is certainly true. Books are tactile, and can engage the senses beyond the visual. I’m currently reading the classic Moby-Dick and I couldn’t possibly imagine reading it on a Kindle. The weight of the book needs to be felt in your hands. It distinguishes it from comparatively slimmer books like, say, Catcher In The Rye or On The Road, both of which have stories and physical girths that seem designed to be thrown in back packs and read on trains or buses. A book like Moby-Dick doesn’t lend itself to that kind of on-the-go, spontaneous consumption. Plus, look at this beautiful cover and cover detail!

That’s not to say there aren’t wonderful applications for devices like the Kindle. I recently read a story about a sharp young student who figured out a brilliant use for his Kindle: storing college textbooks. Despite their usefulness as weapons against angry raccoons that might be encountered in student union parking lots at 2 a.m., lugging those obese tomes around campus was always a hassle. Perhaps a nice upper body workout, but a hassle nonetheless. Furthermore, most college textbooks—with the exception of art history books—don’t have much visual flair, so you wouldn’t be missing much by not having the physical version. Whether this is a good or bad thing in regards to learning is a question that I cannot answer.

A similar, much more pressing situation is happening with another physical media that is also in trouble: newspapers. I’ve actually heard it referred to as a “sunset industry”, which is a shame because it’s hard for me to imagine life without the morning ritual of reading the paper. Actually, I won’t imagine it. I do think that the stodgy format of the newspaper could stand to be refreshed a bit, and I believe the problem with most newspapers is that they are trying to compete with the speed and convenience of online news. They should play to their strengths as tactile objects. What does paper and ink have over pixilated light on a screen, if anything? McSweeney’s literary journal goes to bat for the paper and ink team with their current issue—a lavish, mind-blowing production that presents their version of what a 21st century newspaper should be. I challenge anyone to check it out and convincingly tell me that print is still dead or dying. Check it out below or, for an even better view, on the McSweeney's site here.

Anyway, I’ve rambled on long enough. So which will be the champion in the end? Physical books or e-books? Who will “win”? Ultimately, I feel a hybrid approach is the best approach to almost anything. Combine the strengths of the opposing forces. I embrace new technology as much as anyone and I think the iPod/iTunes model of experiencing music has a lot more pros than cons, but that doesn’t mean I’ve swapped it out for the experience of sitting down with a beer, throwing on the headphones and listening to an album on the dusty old record player or CD player. They’re just different ways of experiencing the same thing. Neither one is inherently better, nor is there a reason that either one must be declared the "winner”. There shouldn’t be a competition at all. The same principle applies to books and e-books. Improving our experiences in life doesn’t have to mean dismissing the old for the latest gadget, and love of tradition doesn’t have to mean blindly distrusting new technology. Hopefully, they can just learn to co-exist together and we can learn to use them with intelligence. Hopefully, it’ll be a hybrid world after all.

February 19, 2010

0 : welcome

Comrades and strangers, welcome to the eponymous blog of Mike Lukich. I am the author.

Here you will find a ramshackle miscellany of popular/unpopular cultural commentary and criticism, autobiographically inspired short fiction that tows the line between the delightfully mundane and the impossibly strange, pictures of random stuff and other graphic ephemera and a generally intelligent and entertaining mish-mash of self-indulgent content.

Subject matter may or may not but will probably include the following: music, superheroes, graphic design, parenthood, Northwest Indiana, popular culture, food science, dive bars and whatever books the author may be reading at the time. Short stories may include protagonists who bear a striking resemblance to younger, dumber versions of the author. Essays will utilize the author's stockpile of wit and charm to hopefully avoid boring the hell out of you. Romantically comedic tales that take place at professional wrestling matches are not unlikely at all. The author may even include his recipe for broiled tilapia parmesan. There will be no poetry. Ever. With the possible exception of that epic poem the author wrote to his long dead parakeet the other night when he was warming up the car in the Target parking lot. Wait, that may not have actually happened.

Here, answer this multiple-choice question:

Of the following, who would you want to have your back in a fight?
a. adventurous young science nerds who wear masks, design their own costumes and paint their bicycles to glow in the dark
b. disgruntled janitors who play Hawaiian speed metal on ukulele at rundown Tiki bars out in the middle of nowhere
c. a ragtag band of intelligent puppies, wolf cubs, a grizzly bear and an exceptionally large blue whale
d. drunken English professors wielding bows and arrows
e. all of the above

The answer is e. If you answered e, you're alright in the author's book.

Whatever the case may be, the author hopes you will be both intellectually stimulated and positively charged by his ramblings and he will work diligently to properly maintain and deodorize this blog as often as once a week or as sporadically as once in a while. Comments and feedback are always welcome and encouraged. In fact, the author will adore you for it. I am the author. Call me Mike.