Thursday, November 29, 2007

Book Review: I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You've Ever Heard, by Tom Reynolds

Your Thanksgiving was a disaster. Your wife warned you that her third cousin’s extended family “might” be coming to your home for Turkey Day dinner, but you never expected this to happen. Their trailer currently resides in your front yard, your house is being treated like a Red Roof Inn, mashed potatoes are somehow smeared on the walls, and the cousin’s teenage son is suggestively eying your dog with something that approximates lust.

You’re angry, frustrated, and a little depressed; to make things even worse, when you turn on the radio you are subjected to “Seasons in the Sun” and “I Will Always Love You.” According to Tom Reynolds, you’ve just heard 2 of the 52 most depressing songs ever written.

Reynolds’ hilarious I Hate Myself and Want to Die: The 52 Most Depressing Songs You’ve Ever Heard is the perfect way to kill whatever holiday cheer or faith in humanity’s collective taste in music you might still have left. Cynical, snarky, and sarcastic, Reynolds’ irreverent take on these songs and why they’re so depressing is the funniest critique of songs since Greil Marcus’ Like a Rolling Stone: Bob Dylan at the Crossroads (wait… he was being serious in that book)?

With chapter names like “I’m Trying to Be Profound and Touching, But Really Suck at It” and “If I Sing About Drugs, People Will Take Me Seriously,” Reynolds’ book cannot be accused of subtlety. Yet Reynolds’ writing style and approach rarely becomes grating or repetitive. Although he never says it directly, Reynolds’ humor takes as its starting point the fact that these songs are so depressing, first and foremost, because they’re so god-awful.

From there, Reynolds’ witty jabs take care of the rest, and no clichéd rock image is safe from Reynolds’ biting humor. Absurd lyrics are exposed (on Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen”: “I don’t know of a single seventeen-year-old girl who would tell off the homecoming queen by saying she has debentures of quality; she’d call her a stuck-up bitch and key her Honda”); musical genres are mocked (on Evanescence’s “My Immortal”: “a song that does for piano ballads what the Hindenburg did for zeppelin travel”); and the flaws of supposed untouchable songs get a swift finger to the eye (on Springsteen’s “The River”: “I’d rather drag my scalp over a cheese grater than listen to it again”).

I can only make a few complaints about this book. Although Reynolds’ song choices are hard to argue against – “Macarthur Park,” “Mandy,” and “Let Her Cry” are indeed both depressing and depressingly bad – it’s a bit presumptuous for the author to call these the most depressing songs ever. No such list is complete without at least one, two, or five choice cuts from Lou Reed’s Berlin, which in my opinion still remains the single most dreary, bleak, and utterly humorless album ever recorded (think I’ll go listen to it now). I’m sure other music sickos out there can find many other songs worthy of consideration in such a list.

The other complaints I have are minor. Sometimes Reynolds comes across as just another VH1 or E! talking head, and can be too witty for his own good. I’m not sure I’d want to sit next to him on the subway. In addition, some of his jokes are very stale and should be relegated to the dustbin of humor at this point (another joke about how Robert Smith from the Cure looks like Edward Scissorhands? A critique of how MTV used to play music videos? Really? Still?).Those shortcomings aside, I Hate Myself and Want to Die is damn funny. Fans of comedy books, cynicism, and good and/or lousy music will find something to like in it. And with enough songs about misery, woe, death, drugs, and suicide, and why they are so appallingly depressing, it’s the perfect holiday gift. Tis the season, after all.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Movie Review: P2

Sometimes theatrical trailers, word of mouth, and positive critical reviews cannot do a movie justice. Sometimes a movie is so powerful, inspiring, hilarious, or suspenseful that it must be seen in order to understand what all the rage is about. Such moments are what make the movie-going experience so memorable.

P2 is not such a movie. With a complete lack of humor or suspense, a laughably over-the-top villain, and a predictable ending, P2 is the worst pseudo-horror movie I’ve seen since the abysmal remake When a Stranger Calls. At least that movie featured one of the coolest movie names ever: Mandrakis. I lived off answering my phone by saying “Mandrakis residence” for weeks.

P2 stars Rachel Nichols as Angela, a hard-working gal who suffers work-related indignities in one of the upper floors of a typical New York skyscraper. On Christmas Eve, while her coworkers are wearing reindeer antlers and getting their drink on in the true holiday spirit, she’s stuck in her spacious office trying to resolve an obnoxious customer’s complaint. In between sputtering out Business Bullshit Bingo clichés and fending off unwanted drunken sexual advances from a male coworker, she’s desperately trying to make it to her parents’ home for a little Yuletide frivolity.

You see, Angela’s a good girl with good intentions, but gosh darn it, she’s always missing family commitments because of her demanding job. She’s also nice to her personal assistant, has no social life or boyfriend, and wears her hair in a tight bun, so we’re supposed to like her.

Things go from bad to worse for her when she finally leaves work and heads to (sinister music, please) parking garage level P2, where her car is parked. She turns the ignition, and in a revolutionary twist never before seen in the horror movie genre, her high-priced Germany luxury car won’t start. Eventually she wanders into to the security office, where she encounters Tom (played by Wes Bentley), the garage’s security attendant. He’s socially awkward, clearly sexually frustrated, wears a dweeby uniform, has a vicious pet dog named Rocky, and sports an outdated haircut, so clearly he’s up to no good. Of course, Angela misses all these clues.

After Tom unsuccessfully attempts to “help” Angela start her car (I am not speaking metaphorically here), she dejectedly calls a cab and waits in the office lobby for the cab to arrive. In another revolutionary twist never before seen in the horror movie genre, she finds that she cannot exit the building because the doors are locked. Despite her protestations, the poor cabbie drives off, and Angela finds herself again trapped in the parking garage on Christmas Eve.

From here, the garage’s lights go off and she’s quickly snatched by Tom, who takes her back to his office, complete with Rubik’s cube, tiny microwave, and Elvis Presley figurine (never a good sign in a movie), and chains her to a chair. When she finally wakes up (Tom drugged her, you see), Angela’s scantily clad in a slip and at the mercy of the security officer, who offers her food, wine, and a whole lot of awkward, thinly-veiled threatening questions. For his trouble, Tom gets a fork jammed in his back courtesy of the feisty Angela when she tries to escape. Ah yes, the seeds of true love always begin with a fork to the back.

Too many stereotypical horror movie staples to regurgitate here then ensue. Tom brutally murders the man who drunkenly accosted Angela in the elevator, in a scene with enough unnecessary gore to rival the Saw franchise. With a truly laughable catchphrase – “Thanks for ruining Christmas” – which Tom says to his various victims, Tom apparently has every psychosis in the book, and makes the villains from Dean Koontz’s absurd novels seem believable.

For added measure, Tom has random outbursts in which he screams violently and irrationally, with dialogue that sounds like a college freshman’s attempt at existentialist writing. And in one truly horrifying scene, Tom performs a karaoke version of Elvis Presley singing “Blue Sunday.” I am not making this up.

Eventually Angela escapes from the evil Tom’s nefarious clutches, pulls herself together, and manages to handcuff Tom to a crashed rental car (synopsis: game of chicken, Angela displays Girl Power, Tom the Super Villain gets cold feet and swerves, cars flip, Tom hobbles out of his car, Angela jams a shank into Tom’s eye). She’s about to walk out of the garage when Tom, because he’s such a bad guy, calls her a name that rhymes with “bunt.” And as the saying goes, “Hell hath no fury like a woman called a name that rhymes with ‘bunt’.” Angela torches the car that Tom is cuffed to, and by extension, Tom. Massive explosion, Angela gimps outside into the snow of New York, cop cars and ambulances come speeding in her direction, end scene.

With needless gore, a truly absurd villain whose parents must have done a number on him, a complete lack of humor, and a paint-by-numbers plot, P2 will quickly be relegated to the dustbin of lousy, forgettable horror movies. Look for it on the USA channel in a few years.

But remember, if you find yourself lost in a parking garage late at night, be afraid. However, if you find yourself lost in a parking garage late at night and being pursued by folks with video cameras on Christmas Eve, be very, very afraid. It’s a sequel.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Waving the Rebel (er, White) Flag: Making Peace With Lynyrd Skynyrd Fans

Hardcore music fans, me included, take insults against their favorite artists personally. To prepare my wife for the recent Elvis Costello show in St. Louis (with Bob Dylan providing a disturbing letdown via garbled mumblings and frog-voiced croaking), I dropped a number of Costello songs on her a few weeks before the show. I was convinced she’d be overwhelmed and completely dig the music. I was as wrong as a “kiss your sister” contest in Arcadia, Louisiana. Every Elvis may indeed have his army, but she clearly wasn’t one of the soldiers. “If you say these are his best songs,” she said with something I detected as a bit of a mocking sneer, “I can’t imagine what the bad ones sound like. All of these sound like carnival songs.”

I was crushed and insulted. Her dissenting opinion registered like a cruel, hard knee to the crotch. I had deliberately steered her away from the crap of Costello (“She,” “God Give Me Strength,” and anything that featured Costello’s occasional excessive vibrato and sissy wimpyness), in favor of classic Costello (no, that doesn’t include North). How she couldn’t like My Aim Is True, This Year’s Model, Armed Forces, and Get Happy!! was beyond me, and borderline grounds for divorce. I argued with her and tried to convince her she was missing The Point. But why did I care if she didn’t share my opinion? Although I couldn’t change her mind, it at least made me understand why some people take criticisms of their favorite performers to heart.

Within these HTML-enhanced pages of Blogcritics, I’ve dished out my share of shallow, petty, innocuous, childish, and fairly obvious insults about musicians, particularly those who have been around since the Hawley-Smoot Tariff was enacted.

These shots have generally been along the following lines: 1 – said musician is old; 2 – said musician is really, really old; 3 – said musician is really, really old and resembles a rotting corpse on stage; and 4 – said musician is really, really, really old, resembles a rotting corpse on stage, and is making a king’s ransom via exorbitant ticket prices.

When I started writing this blog, I expected most of the wounded, snotty, or violent email replies to be provided courtesy of the Dylanphiles of the world, who from previous experience tended to be extremely boorish and to interpret any critique of Heir Bobness as a declaration of war. Well, actually, I didn’t expect any replies at all; blogs are a lot like assholes these days. Everyone’s got one. And most of them stink.

To my surprise, most of these comments emailed under cover of night haven’t come from Dylanphiles. Perhaps that’s because the Dylanphiles don’t feel like they owe anyone a rebuttal at this point; they’ve chosen their horse and they’re betting on it until the, er, wheels fall off.

No, some of the most hilarious, angry, and downright snarky volleys have come from a surprising source: Lynyrd Skynyrd fans, with typical code names like suthernman, skynyrd-rulz-bitch, and bama-luves-the-guvner.

Now I will readily admit I thought all remaining Skynyrd fans were either incarcerated or in that great big trailer park in the sky. But, judging from the reactionary emails I’ve received in response to this posting, apparently I was wrong. Although this article was meant to be pure exaggeration and not taken seriously (not to mention the fact that it was a silly article and that I actually like some of Skynyrd’s honky music), something must have been lost in the translation.

So, motivated by own wounded feelings at my wife’s harsh dismissal of classic Costello and as a peace offering to those mullet-sporting, Wrangler-wearing, Southern Comfort-swilling Freebirds out there, I offer the following concessions:I don’t have any problem (excuse me, I ain’t got no) problem with Skynyrd as a band, even if I am a “Yankee blueblood bastard.”

Just to clarify: my ass and my face don’t serve the same purpose.
You’ve convinced me that “That Smell” is a landmark song. Please no more emails about how “even a jackass with a PC and sympathetic editors” can’t argue against the “bad assed awesomeness” of this song.
There was nothing redneck, gun-totin,’ or Suthern’-luvin’ about Skynyrd. We’ll just let album titles like Gimme Back My Bullets and Nuthin’ Fancy slide. I’ll even ignore song titles like “Don’t Ask Me No Questions” and “Down South Jukin’.”
If it makes you feel better to think that Skynyrd’s use of the Confederate flag was purely meant as a display of Southern pride, and in no way showed blind ignorance or unimaginable stupidity, I’ll play along.
The bravest man I’ve ever met was this guy who brazenly wore a shirt that read, in bold giant black letters across the chest, “Your Favorite Band Sucks.” Of course, this was at a Built To Spill concert with the typical indie crowd, which is to say anyone who took offense to the shirt would direct their anger inward, in the form of classic EMO shoe-gazing.

However, as I exited the venue I noticed a shady fellow in a torn Skynyrd t-shirt eyeing the guy like Robert E. Lee spying the Union army at Second Bull Run. And something told me he had a Free Bird-sized chip on his shoulder about that guy’s t-shirt.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

The Concertgoer's Guide to Appropriate Behavior

The timid finger gently taps the back of the dancing concertgoer, currently engaged in a grotesque pelvic thrust that is part macarena, part electric slide, and all horror.

The concertgoer spins around as if shook from a dream, to hear a kind request to sit down so that the face of the timid finger can see the performer on the stage. The dancer answers by gruffly threatening future physical abnormalities and by telling the person to do something to herself that is physically impossible.

The dancer spins back around and continues his boogie-woogie-woogie. The woman sits in her seat dejectedly. Her seat happens to be a wheelchair.

This, of course, makes the dancing man the world’s biggest asshole.

I witnessed this at the recent Elvis Costello/Bob Dylan October 2007 show in St. Louis.

Only the intervention of a security guard convinced the dancer to at least move to the aisle, so that he could continue his gyrations without blocking the woman’s view. It also led to me to ponder the question of what qualifies as appropriate behavior for a music concert, since I have seen too many cases where norms of human decency have been scuttled in favor of behavior that would rival that of our knuckle-dragging ancestors.

The fact that this type of thuggish behavior has mostly happened at concerts by “established” acts (Dylan, Costello, R.E.M), and not at shows by less-known indie acts (The National, Silver Jews) is a topic probably best left for another day.

What follows is my humble attempt to create a modern day Hammurabi Code for Concertgoers. Minus the punishment by dismemberment and disembowelment.

Reserved Seating

You’ve just thrown down hundreds of dollars and donated several pints of blood in order to afford a couple Neil Young tickets, yet you aren’t exactly thrilled to be sitting at the top of the mountain:

Your reserved seat number is not a suggestion or a general approximation of where to sit. If your ticket says Nosebleed Balcony Seat 236, your posterior should be drawn like a magnet to the confines of that seat’s dimensions.
If you are occupying someone else’s seat and you get called out on it, don’t feign surprise and act like you were unaware you parked it in the wrong spot. Your hangdog expression and slow ascent into the wilds of less cozy environs within the venue gives you away every time.
People occasionally leave their seats to get a drink or buy $50 tour sweatshirts. When they come back to their seat, you shouldn’t be sitting there like a rock-n-roll Goldilocks.
General Admission

General admission is always a dicey proposition. You have a great chance to get in the pit and get close to the musician you’ve been stalking for years. Yet as your fellow concertgoers jockey for prime real estate before the show begins, violent elbows to your spleen are a real concern. Here’s how to handle this situation:

If you are a male under 5’9’’, forget about it. You will be muscled out of your spot in the pit; it is a Darwinian certainty.
Sitting on the floor of the pit until the show begins is not a good strategy. Some concertgoers equate sitting heads with steps. And like a turtle hiding inside its shell, eventually you must come out. When you do, that winged predator with sharp teeth you were hiding from will still be there.
Tables with either chairs or stools at a general admission show are the equivalent of water from a cactus for a man starving in the desert. Do not hesitate, do not look around for a better spot, and do not be fooled by the mirage of a near-empty orchestra pit. Grab the table and bunker down. Do not leave it unguarded under any circumstances.
Bodies in Motion (Dancing and Standing vs. Sitting)

You’ve impressed your date with third-row center seats, but she’s not yet aware of your Travolta-like tendency to treat the venue as part of your personal discotheque. What’s a guy to do?

Consider the performer:
If you are seeing Johnny’s Disco Explosion, go gonzo. There are no laws, rules, or regulation. It’s Thunderdome.
If you are seeing Johnny Q. Folkie, part your butt in your seat, hold hands with your neighbors, and join in when he sings “We Shall Overcome.”
If you are seeing something in between, commit hard in one direction. Either remain rigidly seated even though the other 19,999 people in the arena are shake-shake-shaking all over like frustrated wannabe go-go dancers, or, while everyone else is moping and staring at their shoes, perform your own rhythmic gyrations from the time the show starts until the performer walks off stage. Or until security throws you out. Whichever comes first.
Those around you should not need to drive a flag into the ground to claim their space as part of their familial birthright. Likewise, your raised arms, flailing legs, and shaking ass should not intrude upon any concertgoer with whom you are not intimately familiar.
Nicotine Consumption and Beyond

Your reformed smoker friends constantly tell you to drop the habit. Yet you cannot get the full concert experience without a few puff-puffs. Although your lungs are crying on the inside of you, you need a few lung darts to have a truly enjoyable time. With public smokers becoming pariahs, what’s a dedicated Marlboro man to do?

If it’s a smoking venue, puff away until you can’t puff any more. For extra spite, blow your smoke in the direction of the 6’3’’ jerk that muscled you out off your spot near the pit’s railing (see above).
If it’s a non-smoking venue, you will likely be relegated to an inconspicuous, dimly-lit, and borderline-dangerous alley near a side door to the venue. As you shorten your lifespan along with your fellow cigarette cronies, take this opportunity to remember the old days when non-smokers didn’t complain about minor things like secondhand smoke, their personal comfort, or their desire to not smell like Joe Camel.
A popular alternative to smoking in the great wide open at non-smoking venues is the classic play of smoking in the bathroom. Not only does this say that you won’t be relegated to an alley, it also shows that you are a true worshipper at the altar of God Nicotine. A word of warning though: this approach is the equivalent of running the gauntlet .Those pesky male pissers tend to be uncompromising with anything that keeps them from reaching the porcelain goddess, especially in dire situations.
If your chemical proclivities extend to, technically speaking, illegal substances, follow these simple guidelines to maximize your illicit enjoyment and to avoid an awkward 2 am call to your parents from a holding cell:
You are not hanging out in your basement room with your friends Slappy and Jimmy C-Nuts after your parents have gone to sleep. Be discreet about it.
If you are holding and Security approaches you, do not panic and throw your stash in the lap of the stranger sitting next to you.
Liquid Consumption

You’re a hard-working white collar dude, but sometimes you want to cut loose with half a dozen strawberry-almond flavored microbrews, to show your fellow concertgoers that you’re not a total suit. Before you or your significant other get blitzed at the Police reunion show on drinks that all end in “tini” and drunkenly croak out “Roxanne” in your own key, observe these rules:

Remember that beautiful duet of “I Shall Be Released” that Dylan and Costello sang at Tramps in 1999? How you couldn’t believe your luck to be in the front row to witness such a moment? How the crowd was pin-drop silent and just knew they were witnessing something amazing that would defy later description? No? Then you drank too much.
Remember hitting on the blonde bartender, challenging the bouncer to a mixed martial arts fight, and screaming hysterically for Kelly Clarkson to sing “that one song from the radio?” Yes? Then you didn’t drink enough.
Performances come and go, bands come and go, but the memory of an unplanned concert vomit on someone’s Chuck Taylors lasts forever.
Waiting in Line

You’ve got general admission tickets to see your favorite musician for the 47th time tonight. To ensure you get close enough to him to see the wrinkles in his catcher’s mitt-like face, you’ve lined up outside the venue six hours before the doors open. You’ve got no one for company except the voices in your own head. You’ve got some time on your hands, so remember these rules:

Eventually people will line up behind you. Do not snarl, bark, or constantly look over your shoulder in paranoia at them. They mean you no harm. Besides, they are piss-fear afraid of you.
Sometimes people will need to walk past you. They are not trying to steal your spot. Some of them aren’t even going to the show. There is no need to eye f-blankety-blankety-blank them.
Sometimes security moves the line to a new starting point, for no reason other than their sadistic pleasure. Shake your fist at the sky, blame cruel fate, whatever gets you through, but the bottom line is that you’d better run like hell. Your previous position as king has been suddenly usurped.
Talking During Shows/Other Random Noises

For some reason, we Americans love to spend large sums of money on concerts and then talk through the buggers. You’ve done this in the past but want to repent; you still have a sneaking suspicion that your constant gum-bumping precipitated the riot at the Guns-N-Roses concert in St. Louis years ago. Follow these simple rules and you shall be granted forgiveness:

If someone smaller than you tells you to quit talking, ignore him. If someone bigger than you tell you to quit talking, listen to him.
Opening acts are people too. Give them a chance before continuing your conversation about how opening acts aren’t people and almost always stink.
Your brand new, super-shiny Motorola V-1,000,000,000 is pretty cool. It’s Web-enabled, is smaller than your pinky finger, washes your car, feeds your children, and when you’re feeling frisky, its vibrate function packs a decent punch. But no one wants to hear your Bette Midler ringtone as Springsteen and Max Weinberg’s Semi-Retired Superstars play “Rosalita” for the 700th time.
Remember that shows are taped with increasing frequency nowadays. Unless you want your conversation about your asshole boss recorded for posterity, keep your voice down.
You’ve followed Dylan across the country since 1963, screaming at every show for him to play “Let Me Die In My Footsteps.” Give it up. It’s not gonna happen.
Behavior in Outdoor Venues

These shows aren’t for the uninitiated. And if you have a heart condition, be warned. Like scaling Mount Everest, surviving outdoor concerts and festivals requires a certain kind of mental fortitude, along with a blatant disregard for sanity, hygiene, flushable toilets, and other key pieces needed for human life to flourish. So before brazenly heading off to that White Snake/Poison double bill under the stars, observe the following:

Urinating in a port-a-potty is gross. Urinating on the lawn where people sit is grosser. Use the port-a-potty.
Not everyone shares your affinity for mud. The mud people are not hard to find. Find them and fling away.
That early 20s-something girl who sported four-inch bangs and flashed Bret Michaels at the Poison concert in 1987 still lives inside you. Please warn everyone around you before your now-undersized shirt is tossed into the ether.
It’s July in Chicago. It’s Hades hot. You’re hungry and tired. The “chill tent” looks like a sick room. You’re surrounded by thousands of people who all resemble Will Oldham and smell like an unholy mixture of sunscreen, weed, and corn dogs. This is the true festival experience. Enjoy it.
Common human decency should dictate how to behave at a concert. And everyone should drive the speed limit. When that decency deteriorates into a mixture of chaos, anarchy, and baby boomers breaking out “Heart of Gold” in a drunken frenzy, the guidelines above could help out in a pinch.

Then again, the 300-pound guy in the Metallica Kill ‘Em All shirt who’s now sitting in your seat hasn’t ever really cared much for rules.