Monday, February 28, 2011

Free Forest City Redemption Project Day 6: Six Sad Oceans

Welcome back from the weekend, my Puddlers. We got some terrific weather this weekend, some great basketball games on Sunday as well as the Oscars.  Now, a lot of people will be talking about the Oscars today, but I just want to make it clear that James Franco's hosting duties at the Oscars were basically what I would have done if I were asked to host any kind of event that was deemed important (i.e. smirking like a smart ass and stiffly acting/reacting to things that happen in front of you).  Franco's performance was frankly Stellaesque, as mainstream as Stella will ever get, so I call it a huge victory for the world of comedy. Long live the 2011 Oscars! Free copies of The Kings Speech on Blu-Ray for everybody!

Back to business. We are now on Day 6 of the Free Forest City Redemption Project, which gives us the track "Six Sad Oceans" from the album Forest City. It seems like we are continuing on a sort of water theme here, hmmm.  Anyway, the stats for people listening to the album have been great, but I do encourage all of you to download the tracks and enjoy them on your iPod or whatever other apparatus you like to carry around—remember, the tracks are all FREE unless you decide to donate.

So, please enjoy "Six Sad Oceans."

Friday, February 25, 2011

Free Forest City Redemption Project Day 5: Run Rivers

It's Friday, my Puddlers, and we are on Day 5 of the Free Forest City Redemption Project.  We'll keep moving along with track five of the album Forest City, which is the song "Run Rivers." For some reason I think it fits Friday and this rainy day. Not really sure why.  In any case, I've put an image of Thomas Wolfe's novel Of Time and the River up as an image to represent the track.  You can dissect it or downplay it as much as you like.

In other news, this time off has me thinking of a lot of good little posts. I came up with an especially good idea for a review of McCartney when I was walking around in the mist last night and then in the rain this morning, stepping in Puddles of Myself all the while.

Enjoy, "Run Rivers."

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Free Forest City Redemption Project Day 4: The Beginning

Day 4 of the Free Forest City Redemption Project.  Today brings the fourth track on the album Forest City, which is entitled "The Beginning."  You can download it here.

I just want to give a mention to Mike McCaffrey who recorded a bunch of these tracks. I don't have his website or any of his other recording archives so if someone wants to send a link my way, I would be glad to let the world know.

I also wand to give due to Andras Pokorny, who recorded and did mixing work on these tracks as well. Andras does a lot of cool stuff and you can get access to it by going to Dark Comedy Hour. I highly recommend browsing around on there.

Again, these live images at the Brooklyn Rod and Gun Club are from B. Haus.

Enjoy, "The Beginning."

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Free Forest City Redemption Project Day 3: Long Haulers

Good morning, my Puddlers. We are in Day 3 of the Free Forest City Redemption Project.  Today I am giving you the track "Long Haulers" from the album Forest City.  This happens to be one of my particular favorites based on my perception of the lyrics.  Take a listen and decide for yourself.

If anybody is confused by the Band Camp site, you can download the tracks without purchasing them.  Just enter in "$0.00" for the amount when the site prompts you.  You can donate money if you want to, but certainly download them so you can carry them around and feel invincible amongst the losers on the subway.

Oh, and all of these live photos are courtesy of B. Haus.

Enjoy, "Long Haulers."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Free Forest City Redemption Project Day 2: Bright Lights

Good morning, my Puddlers.  I got some good responses about "Little Runner," which was posted yesterday as well as the liner notes/introduction that accompanied that post.  So, thanks for the initial remarks.

We roll along today (in what will be known as St. Carmelo Anthony Day for years to come), with "Bright Lights," the second track on the album Forest City. You can take a listen to the track here. Remember to download the tracks as they go along so you can add them to your iPod experience.  The whole thing plays well from start to finish when all the tracks are together—trust me, I know things.

Enjoy "Bright Lights."

Monday, February 21, 2011

Free Forest City Redemption Project Day 1: Little Runner

Fame is a strange thing. It’s not something tangible that sticks with a person. At its height, it can be frighteningly alluring, repulsive and inspiring all at the same time. When it wanes, you wonder why you or anyone else ever wasted their time; why that person endeavored or made the effort to put themselves or their work out into the public; or, if that person’s fame came without perceived labor, why you even bothered to care, why you wasted rainy nights or quiet mornings to follow their next thought, move or release. We all want to be relevant, but the degrees that separate relevance, fame and immortality are great and often confusing and it’s easy to forget what really matters or which aspect we truly want.

Forest City was clearly not a famous band. But to me, someone who is clearly biased, they were the best band in Brooklyn for a period of time. Their concerts were shambolic, loose and messy, but not in the legendary way that we remember Bob Dylan, the Replacements, Faces or Bruce Springsteen. They were messy because that’s just what they were. There was no great statement. The music was a take on country music, a sincere take that was meant to be lived in—and the band was lived in if it was anything. That is to say, four separate lives and ambitions carried on outside the parameters of the band and the shows they played, which made the fact that they were loose and messy make so much sense. Yet, in the days of head nodding and pretending to drink too much, Forest City concerts were the only places without computers were I saw honest dancing; where the sense of happiness, warmth and friendship that I look for in music best manifested itself in a close proximity to me (the albums I love are distant pinnacles with impossible sounding drums that play at the corners of my apartment on speakers and reverberate in my mind). People left Forest City concerts saying things about “fun” that eased my heart because, for a moment, they loved country music and that made me happy. And without knowing it, they loved what rock n’ roll was originally about: fun and loss.

In the midst of loving The Larry Sanders Show and watching the 2011 NBA All-Star Game in L.A., what I mean to say is that I’ve lived in Brooklyn for about three years. Nearly all of my friends are in bands. As someone who wants his words to be seen by the entire world, I know that all of us aren’t going to be famous. It is quite possible that the Tony Castles are the only band I know that are going to gain a modicum of fame; and even that isn’t a prediction. And I know that we’re going to feel shitty and petty toward each other to get to what we want, to get to that level of relevance for our work, of who we are, that level that may or may not resemble fame. Whatever that level of relevance may be, we should never forsake our art. And, even if we manage to do that, we will surely fall short of immortality.

And as I grow tired of Brooklyn and music and think about my search for an audience for my words, as I think about people that I’ve spent weekends with who have now died, I feel OK for moments about falling short of immortality. I feel OK because I know that I have this batch of songs. Not that they are extremely poignant or mind-blowing, but simply because they exist and I can remember a happiness from an era of my life as we move past it and into the vastness of whatever fortune will make of us or what we choose to make of it. I feel OK because in that era I could see these songs played on a Friday with friends, new characters in my life, new people who influenced me and one poor soul who I admired. In that era of song, I saw the first marriage of my young life unfold right before my eyes between two friends. And most of all, I formed a lifelong bond with someone who I thought would never be able to surprise me, which is a phenomenon that I am forever thankful for.

Of course, all of this isn’t in this set of eleven songs. However, some of it may be in you, so just take a listen.

Click here to listen to "Little Runner," track one of the Forest City album, Forest City.

Friday, February 18, 2011

The Forest, After Mark

In preparation of the Free Forest City Redemption Project, which kicks off next week.  Mr. Mark Jack (bassist from the band) had decided to use his regular Friday space in order to bring you some initial thoughts on the band he was a member of.  You can view this post as sort of an amuse-bouche, to tantalize you for the tracks you'll be hearing over the next few weeks. That's all I'm going to say.  So, my Puddlers, enjoy the warm weather today, enjoy the weekend and we'll see you next week when this blog becomes a shrine to the music of Forest City for a few weeks.

Take it away, Mark Jack.

Forest City Believers

Mark Jack

…and why not? Why shouldn’t I just sit there on that low slung metal rail, staring first at the strange Monitor Monument in McGolrick Park, then at absolutely anything else, and think nothing of it, and know that the jogger now passing thinks no more of me than he must think of the low slung metal rail upon which I wearily rest my lazy ass, and I think equally little of him? Would I rather be understood or misunderstood? Maybe I should not force my “I” onto the scene at all? No! Maybe…

It’s like this:

A redheaded boy in misunderstood pants, talking on a misunderstanding phone speaks into the metal and plastic tonelessly, saying, “Where are you? What are you doing? Why? … Hello?” Then he looks at the phone, puts it in his pocket, sits on a bench, but sort of floats above the greenish painted wood planks with the force of his uncertainty.


In the back seat of the police car that moves with grace and contentment, the presumed criminal stares closely out the window like a child, devouring the passing wonder of the world with the full appetite of young pupils.


I’m standing in front of a crowd of half drunk people. They are staring at my friends and me on the stage. They are seeing me, sure, but they are staring at me as one stares at a computer’s screen as it turns on, not caring about the blank screen, or those little markers of work, colored bars moving left to right, spinning circles and such; one stares at the computer and appreciates it as conduit. Similarly I stare at my self, through these people in front and slightly below me, waiting for the music to be produced through me.


Forest City was a band that demanded proximity. It was a band that was loose as hell and performed Glenn Gould variations of country earnestness with absolutely no discipline. Forest City was not disciplined. The songs were performed as anyone might dance in their room as a child to their favorite pop song. Forest City made music because music is sustenance, and a food can look as good as it wants, but does not confirm itself until eaten. Forest City was a band that demanded the whole experience, demanded to lick the spoon at all stages. Nick and Ted created songs that I wanted to hear so much that I needed to get closer and closer until I was actually playing. I needed the music to be so close that it passed through my fingers.

Forest City allowed me to present my self to others as almost ego-less, to dance within the song. It was a band that existed for the drunken sing-along.

“If you wanna sing along…don’t, no do!”


Kid Video

I was running in McCarren Park this morning and thinking about how great the weather was.  Then, when I got home and felt refreshed from the physical activity, I read about the new, small Cezanne exhibit that is taking place at MOMA over the next few months. After I read that, I thought about much I love Cezanne's work and how much it means to me.  Then, I found out that Radiohead had pushed up the release of their new album King of Limbs and since I hate Radiohead so much I decided that I needed to do something to combat their release and take away from it.

When you add my love of the warm weather, Cezanne, physical activity and hatred of Radiohead and the need to steal the spotlight from them, what do you get? You get the emptying of the Puddles of Myself Video Vault!

Here are a few videos from last summer taken on Thatch Meadow Farm in Head of the Harbor on Long Island.  It was a hot day, there was no wind, so we drank beer and floated on my friend's hobi-cat.  Those days are coming again soon.

Stay tuned for Mark Jack's post later today.

1. Rooftop ride down to the waterfront on the farm:

2. Jon approaches the hobi-cat in the water:

3. A swimming dog is lifted uncomfortably onto the hobi-cat trampoline while people drink Budweiser:

4. Erik makes the pass under the hobi-cat.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Garden Party

I’m a huge basketball fan.

Oh, you already knew that.  Well, in case you didn’t then let me briefly explain.  I’ve had a love affair with the NBA and the game of basketball since I was about seven years old.  I’ve followed NCAA basketball and NBA basketball each year since 1993.  I have memorized players’ names, their stats and most importantly their stories—what colleges they went to, who coached them, how they developed their style and game, how they were known in the locker room among their teammates.  Basketball is a more dynamic sport than baseball and doesn’t rely completely on statistics to tell a story or to keep interest.  It is not as in-your-face masculine as football, but still retains an element of swagger and testosterone style.  Basketball players are put right in front of you on a stage, on the basketball court.  There are no helmets; there is no large outfield. Basketball is ten players, ten abnormally tall and strong players, on a shiny wooden court beneath spotlights.  There is a drama and an excellence to it that strike me as being very important at all times and it is perhaps the best sport to watch live. 

My love affair is particularly strong with the NBA.  I know the histories of all the teams so well that I have grown to love each franchise in its own way.  When you add the fact that this year has been the best basketball season since perhaps 1986-1987 season or the 1991-1992 season, you have to appreciate the fact that I could watch any team, any game on any particular night and be entertained by a game of professional basketball.

So, when the Boston Celtics and the Miami Heat played in Boston this past Sunday in their third matchup of the season, my friend Jeff (an equal appreciator of basketball) and I had to go to the game.  The fact that the game was for first-place in the Eastern Conference standings made it even better. As did the fact that the Heat had already lost two games to the Celtics earlier in the season. The fact that the Heat had lost those two contests when they hadn’t yet attained the chemistry they had since gained made it all the more fascinating.

I’m going to save some more of the meaningful stuff regarding friends and sports contests and time for another post. Instead, here I will post some of my observations from a Sunday at the New Boston Garden.

- The New Garden is a classic bit of Boston architecture.  It sort of just blends in with the rest of the buildings around it.  That is to say, it looks weird, but still seems to mesh with that insanely dated architecture and those spiraling staircases of the Lindemann Mental Health Center. That being said, its in a pretty convenient and awesome location right on the water. Its not in the heart of the city like Madison Square Garden, but still pretty good.

- Inside, the arena is so intimate.  When the crowd stands at the beginning of the game it seems like people will spill out onto the court. It really adds a great look to the game environment.  Definitely two thumbs up.

- The most frequently worn jersey at the game wasn’t a Garnett jersey, a Pierce jersey, an Allen jersey or even a vintage Bird jersey (though I did see someone rocking a Bird, Indiana State Sycamores jersey), it was shockingly enough a Rondo jersey.  Now, I love Rondo and I knew that the Boston fans appreciated him, but I didn’t realize how popular he actually was. He deserves it of course, but it was just surprising.

- On the subject of Rondo, he is a freak of nature.  His hustle is insane when going after loose balls.  Jeff and I had seats along the baseline and we got to watch up close when Rondo guarded LeBron in the fourth quarter. Although Rondo is undersized, it was amazing to see his weird sinewy strength and his length give LeBron some problems.  Also, when he flicks a layup with those huge hands, it’s really just something special.

- The Celtics pass really well. It’s fantastic to watch in person.

- You know when you watch a Celtics game on TV and Ray Allen hits a huge three pointer and the crowd just explodes? Yeah, when that happens in person it is very, very loud. The crowd literally roars.  Plus, there is nothing like seeing a smooth Ray Allen three pointer in person. The crowd gets about this loud:

- LeBron in person is a spectacle. He is so large and when he muscles his way through the lane to the basket, you sort of have to take pity on whomever he’s hitting into.  I’ve never really seen anything like it.  I mean we all know that LeBron is an alien and freakishly talented, but to see him in action is something completely different.

- Bosh has a very smooth shot. I don’t know who’s shot is smoother, his or Garnett’s.

- Wade is so sneaky getting to the basket.  He had an off game because he missed a few tip-ins and layups, but the way he figures out how to dart through the lane and along the baseline and get close to the basket is pretty much unparalleled in the game today.  It’s a sort of rare talent that I haven’t been able to place the origins of. Its sort of Barkleyesque in its sneakiness, but Wade obviously lacks the force and the atypical body type that Barkley had.  I’ll think about it some more.

- Watching Wade, Bosh and LeBron communicate with each other after a timeout is so fascinating.  You know that their basketball IQ is so high and that they are speaking at a level above so many of the players on the court that you are just drawn in whenever they are close to each other.  You want to know what exactly they are figuring out as they make hand motions and point to certain spots on the floor.  Probably one of my favorite parts of watching this game and being so close.

- As J.A. Adande pointed out on his Twitter feed, the Heat definitely had an element of cool during the game and it cost them.  They could have taken that game and made a definite statement, but it seemed like they had the approach of, “We’re better now than we were in November. We know we’re better. We don’t have to try too hard to win this game. We’re going to win it because we’re better than we were.” But, they didn’t fight for everything and they lost a game that was very winnable. I’m hoping that was just a “regular season game right before All-Star break” syndrome, but that was a big game and they should have felt the urgency and playoff intensity that was needed. I know the Boston crowd felt it.

- Once again, the Boston crowd is great and the environment is definitely special. I’m glad the Celtics are good and relevant. I will miss this current team when the window closes and I’m very happy that I have now seen them.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Hazy Shade of Winter

Hello, my Puddlers. Yesterday, I wanted to give you an update on what's coming up on the blog, but some work related issues and then computer related issues kept me from posting.  However, I am going to give you the run down now.

First of all, I've been listening to Simon & Garfunkel's album Bookends, which is pretty phenomenal.  I had actually forgotten how amazing it is. When you listen to "America" and "Mrs. Robinson" in the flow of the album they get such a great new clarity to them.  This album is also great to listen to really loud on speakers. A deep cut that will definitely get in your ear is "At the Zoo." I'm thinking of doing a write-up of it.

The main news about blog programming is that starting next Monday, February 21, we will be commencing the Free Forest City Redemption Project.  In a bit of an update to that page (and for those of you who are not in the loop), I will be releasing a track a day of the Forest City album, Forest City, that I have compiled and sequenced from various recording sessions over the past year.  The album itself is 11 tracks and will feature three bonus tracks.  Each day, you will be directed the the Band Camp page I have set up for the album where you can download each track and or contribute a donation should you feel inclined.  The album will then be available to download as a whole after all of the album tracks have been posted.  The first post will feature an essay that I've written and there may be other fun notes and things to follow.  There will be no new blog posts by either myself, Mark Jack or any guest columnists until all of the tracks have been posted. This project has been a labor (albeit very slight labor—listen for the aptly placed silences I put between tracks) of love for me, so I hope you all enjoy it.

As for upcoming columns and posts, you can expect:

1. Bookends review
2. New Fiction Roundup (Thoughts on Freedom, Super Sad True Love Story and Great House)
3. NBA Playoff Preview
4. NCAA Tournament Running Commentaries
5. A rambling post on the changing of seasons
6. Review of Frank Sinatra's Watertown
7. Huge post on the return of the Strokes as soon as I get Angles.

Plus you never know what the hell kind of wisdom Mark Jack is going to drop and who else is going to put their two cents up here.

Tomorrow, I will provide some brief observations from the Celtics/Heat game from Sunday and then Mark Jack will have a new column for you on Friday.

It's all good stuff.  Just stick with my, my Puddlers.  You have no idea how close you are to winning it all with me.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Take Another Piece of My Mark

Happy Valentine's Day all my Puddlers. I wouldn't be here without all of your love, adoration and chocolate, so I thank you all.  I went to the Heat/Celtics game at the TD Garden in Boston this weekend, so I will give you my thoughts on that tomorrow as well as some announcements for blog content over the next two weeks. Also, this week you can expect another rambling, emotional essay that hopefully touches on something poignant.

However, today, on the day of love, I give you a post from the man who perhaps defines romance, passion, sweeping statements of drama and cavalierism, and, well, love.  Mr. Mark Jack will put you in the mood, so keep those oysters for another evening, an evening when you can't get it up.

Take it away, Mark.

Inner Resources

Mark Jack

Several versions of my failures have impressed upon me a sense, and maybe a facial tic or two, of urgent contemplation. Perhaps it is merely that my glasses are no longer properly prescribed, but I am daily caught without a thought in my head, or anywhere, or maybe I am repeatedly found stuck in those spaces just after the word where one normally considers, contemplates and hopefully understands the word. I remain stuck in a rut but not out of sync.

How much of my life is lived reflectively? How often have I written or said, “I think” or “I wonder” instead of thinking or wondering? So much wasted time and wasted space, announcing my intentions instead of just intending. I write “I think” so that I, myself, might know that I am now, in this un-capturable now, writing and thinking what will come, what will be thought by me, and do I really? do I think? or do I avoid the possibility of thought altogether by simply writing longer and longer preambles, small conciliatory clauses, apologetic phrases, employing countless conjunctions and near pointless prepositions?

Friends! I remain stalled, non-committal.

The average Egyptian lives on two dollars a day, the Economist told me, though the currency used is the Egyptian pound—small liars. I read with liberal interest. Hillary is in a bind.

Would Woody let all this pass, all this turmoil turn the world, as unnoticed as we have let it be?

I feel that I worry that I feel like Henry, maybe.

Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) "Ever to confess you're bored
means you have no

Inner Resources." I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored. 

Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature, 

Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes 

as bad as Achilles,

who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag 

and somehow a dog 

has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.


Here, in one of Berryman’s Dream Songs even boredom is announced, shouted; it is a thing, a motivating thing. I am committed, at least, to my lack. I am a floating signifier—of what!?—, an unfinished equation—to what end!? To those still reading, I can promise no conclusion, but thank you for your patience. I mean to say, that you will not be rewarded.

I have been reading Berryman’s poetry with great enthusiasm since a friend introduced him to me two years or so ago, and I find lines and stanzas and whole poems creeping into my mind now and then like some antidote to canned phrases like now and then. 

I want to venture the suggestion that we need a little more language in our lives, maybe a little more self-conscious language. We have too much un-self-conscious language in our lives and, strangely, as much irony. It seems strange to feel that we have combined irony with un-self-consciousness, but we have,, and it is strange. In fact, it cannot be irony, but rather the ironic mode in which we conceive ourselves, and that mode is employed without thought or substance too often. Or rather, it is confused with some form of knowledge authentically, or, as Paul de Man writes, “to know inauthenticity is not the same as to be authentic.”



Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Denial Twist

For me, the White Stripes will always be summed up by this line from a letter my friend Dan Morgenstern wrote to me in September of 2005:

“Then, all of a sudden, ‘Whose a Big Baby!’ Jeff and I ran down to the stage and there they were. Jack White like a bolt of lightning playing guitar. My God!”

I was living and studying (drinking, really) in Ireland. My friend Jeff had bought me a ticket to see the White Stripes at Coney Island’s KeySpan Park—which was then brand new—for my birthday.  Unfortunately, Jeff hadn't known the exact dates of my travel, so I gave up my ticket to our friend Dan instead. That quote sticks with me not just because I remember reading the letter in my sad, sorry room, the window open, drizzle falling outside and feeling so tremendously guilty for missing the show. No, it sticks with me because its how I then always pictured the White Stripes: bolts of electricity, lightning, extreme characters and figures of energy.  “Who’s a Big Baby?” is a rare track, a B-Side to the “Blue Orchid” single that I had bought earlier that summer when I couldn’t get enough of Get Behind Me Satan.  That summer, we’d sit in my friend Erik’s car at the parking lot of the town beach and drink beer while the sun set over the Long Island sound.  We were exhausted and dusty from work, but we’d smoke and drink and listen to “My Doorbell,” “The Denial Twist,” “Forever for Her is Over for Me,” “Take, Take, Take,” and “I’m Lonely (But I Ain’t That Lonely Yet).” We’d listen to those songs and argue about which one was the best until the bugs started biting our legs and we’d be forced to think about the air-conditioning in our childhood rooms, which felt less and less like ours, where we’d sleep and then go to work in the heat of the next morning.

Later that summer, Dan, Jeff and I drove Jeff’s new, blue, Subaru Outback across the country (well, Arizona and back) in three weeks.  We looped north through Columbus, through Chicago and up to Big Sky, Montana and then all the way down through the Grand Canyon, across through Norman, Oklahoma and then around the bend of Georgia up through Shenandoah, until we returned in the twilight of some August evening back to the fertile lawns of Long Island.  On that trip, we listened to the White Stripes.  Dan took absolute joy in the discovery of the perverse and bizarre brand of rock n’ roll that “Who’s A Big Baby?” represented.  Jeff could do nothing but effusively gush, with his New York bravado, about the “good old rock n’ roll, Domino.  This is what its really about.  What happened? How come no one makes songs like this anymore, Domino? Huh?”  We fought with each other on that trip as wind ripped through the sunroof.  We slept effortlessly in our tent in the woods of Wyoming.  We washed in creeks in Montana and did push-ups on picnic tables.   And one rainy morning in Boulder, I even debated just running out on that road alone, because, well, because I just get urges and feel pent up by life—it’s something most young people feel.

The White Stripes don’t represent that specific road trip or even that summer of my life.  Maybe if you made me sit down and analyze the summer I could prove that the White Stripes did define the summer of 2005.  However, like most bands that you love, the White Stripes could have defined multiple summers and seasons.  They could have defined the summer of 2002, when Dan and I saw them play with the Strokes at Radio City and I got so drunk on the train on the way in that I had to sit on the toilet throughout intermission only to emerge victorious just in time for the Strokes’ set.  Or, they could’ve represented the fall of 2003, my first semester at college when I went to my friend Kevin’s hometown in New Hampshire and we cruised the quiet, empty, working class streets and I felt the ghosts of his youth and years of rebellion try to haunt my skin as if they were my own.  All of this while we listened to White Blood Cells over and over again and let our cigarettes hang out the rusted car windows.

The White Stripes and their strange world sound-tracked nearly all of my adolescence, my college years and my young adult confusion.  I watched them expand on their sound from album to album since I first discovered them in 2001.  They are the first band from my formative years, the first contemporary band that I even CARED about, to break up.  Maybe that doesn’t mean anything—it probably isn’t any kind of greater symbol for an end of youth—but I will almost certainly miss waiting for an anticipating their next album.  They made me think for brief moments that anything was possible in simple rock n’ roll.  I remember how loud Elephant felt, how shocking a song like “There’s No Home For You Here” sounded or how vicious “Black Math” could be, especially when Jack switched hooks on a dime. Then, Get Behind Me Satan changed what I had known about the band with a single piano and “My Doorbell,” the best song that Michael Jackson never sang. And then they clouded themselves in weirdness and obscurity with Icky Thump just as they had originally done on White Blood Cells and De Stijl. And there will always be the raw self-titled album with the swagger of the Stones mixed with the shrill basics of Led Zeppelin.  Like I said, I will miss waiting for their next album.

Yet, that’s not the reason I’m sad or even melancholy.  It’s not the loss of hope, of expectation, of looking for a date on the calendar when I would get 12 or 13 new songs to love and memorize.  No, the sadness comes from the fact that I, like most of the characters I write about and like most people in general, am past haunted. The White Stripes in my mind, the electric Jack White and the ghostly Meg, are images of the past.  They are not as I remember them in those sunny memories from almost a decade ago.  Jack White now pushes his fervent creativity in all directions, laying his vision on records he produces or other bands he plays in like The Dead Weather and the Raconteurs.  But those bands lack the immediacy, the bizarre simple creativity that the White Stripes had, that quality that made you believe that rock n’ roll would always be relevant in one way or another.  And again, my mind is drawn to the past, to the clammy brick hallways of my high school and my pride in being one of the only true rock n’ rollers, one of the first people to hoist White Blood Cells and Elephant over his head.  Instead, perhaps I should be excited, perhaps I should be hopeful that Jack White will continue on.  That he will make his own Jack White Band,  a shifting group that releases albums that completely change from record to record like the old eccentric guitar genius Jeff Beck, who he most closely takes after.  Maybe that’s what I can take solace in.

Yet, as I sit and listen to the light rain falling outside my kitchen windows, as I look out at the slick sheen of water covering my roof, I can’t help but think of the inevitability of the coming summer.  Of the pressing of heat and bodies.  Of the length of days and those long, sprawled out sweating nights.  Maybe its wishful thinking in this cold weather, but I’m thinking of the summer.  And my stomach is all tied up with visions of my past and of those summers that I remember, which may not have been as great as I remember them.  So, perhaps I’ll have to let them go—all those summers—and let them come back to me naturally in all that I encounter in those burning months of the future.  And I’ll have to do the same with the White Stripes.  But I’m pretty sure the summer of 2005 was one of the best summers of my life, one that I’ll never forget. And I’m pretty sure the White Stripes were great.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

A Laugh a Minute With John Lennon

**I'll give credit to anyone who can tell me where the title of this blog originates from in Beatles lore.

We can all thank our parents for a variety of things. We can thank them for our good looks, our bad looks, our low self esteem, our sense of confidence and many, many annoying moments that are somehow brought to an equilibrium with the endearing ones that come to mind when you are far away from them. What I can always thank my parents for is the strange attention I have towards what is actually funny.  My parents are not particularly “funny” people. They have moments of comic genius, sure, but moments do not make a person funny—it requires a greater prolonged commitment and torture.  However, what my parents constantly reminded me of (and continue to remind me of) is the fact that I should write comedy.  When it became quite clear I would only want to write and would do whatever it took to write, my parents were naturally worried.  They didn’t want me becoming a completely serious (self-serious?) destitute. So, they would remind me that I was in fact funny and could write funny things.  We would watch Saturday Night Live, various Late Shows or a funny movie and they would say, “You could write something like that.”  For so many years, I took their encouragement as the greatest form of insult they could possibly toss at me, knowingly or not. It should have been clear to my parents of all people that I was the heir apparent to the most serious of artists; that my vision burned stronger, my heart beat more wildly; my desire for independence was so fervent that I could do nothing but create sprawling works of intense brilliance.  Yet, it is after years of being with friends who are varying degrees of funny, making jokes at the expense of adults and other bystanders and paying attention to works of comedy that exhibit the many perspectives of what is funny, that I realize how important it was that my parents repeated their mantra.  I don’t think I am capable of creating anything that is truly funny or that could be enjoyed any group of people beside myself—I simply don’t have that kind of talent or patience for finding the joke.  However, with my own sense of humor, I believe that I have learned to enjoy deeply what things are funny.  And, sometimes simply enjoying a thing or virtue is one of the hardest defeats we have to admit in life.

I eventually want to write a book about humor (just as I want to write the definitive book on Dwayne Wade), but the easiest way for me to present my ideas here is to start with a sketch by the 1990s’s comedy group, the State.  The comedians in the State and all of their subsequent works have been perhaps the most profound impact on my idea of what is funny (especially acting-wise).  Very often, this involves the most juvenile or simple joke and even more frequently, it involves the most absurd.  The State sketch I want to refer to is called “The Restaurant Sketch.” In this particular sketch, we are shown the comedian David Wain in a restaurant.  He speaks to a waiter, played by Ken Marino, in a normal voice, but the waiter acts as though he is shouting, as do the other restaurant goers. Marino comes back to the table with a megaphone and begins reciting the specials in order to combat Wain’s supposed yelling.  At this point, Wain turns to the camera and explains that the scene is funny because he is not actually yelling.  Wain explains that anything that isn’t true is funny and anything that is true isn’t funny.  He gives a few examples of this logic, like the waiter saying one of the specials is, “fish sautéed in paper clips, seasoned with garden tools.”  The waiter explains that they don’t serve it, which makes it by nature something funny to say.  Wain then turns to the diner behind him (played by the always amazing Michael Showalter) and tells the man to ask him what he had for breakfast.  Wain replies, “eggs,” and the man immediately laughs.  We are told this is funny because Wain actually had waffles for breakfast, not eggs.  Wain then tells the man to ask him the same question about his breakfast. This time, Wain replies that he had “waffles” and the man looks disgusted and disappointed because “waffles” aren’t funny since Wain actually had eggs.  Then, Wain welcomes in a person dressed in a chicken costume who is wearing a priest’s collar and who opens a book and says, “Please open your hymnals,” as though he were a priest.  This is funny because it is a chicken acting like a priest inside a restaurant.  However, Wain reveals this isn’t funny because he is actually in a church and the backdrop immediately changes to a church, so what was actually funny was anything that was in reference to a restaurant. Yet, Wain further reveals that even the church references were funny because they were actually in his bedroom the whole time and he promptly crawls into bed, “with the knowledge that this has all been very funny.”  He then says, “Good Morning,” curls up in bed as all the actors in the different scenes laugh behind him since he said “good morning,” when he was going to bed. Clearly, this entire sketch features the State exhibiting all facets of their craft: stupidity, pointlessness, puerility, absurdity and yet still something influential.  What this whole sketch points out is that it can be very pointless to try to boil down or define what is funny, because literally everything that isn’t true isn’t funny, though an obvious example like Wain stating the opposite of what he had for breakfast, a very normal breakfast like eggs, is made funny because of the absurdity of the simplicity of this “formula.” What makes this sketch more than trivial is that fact that we do often find something that isn’t true, that isn’t normal funny.  An infant thinks its funny when you hide your face and then pop it out because it seemed to be gone, but then, it wasn’t! As we grow we still find things that aren’t true funny.  A comic will exaggerate a situation or perhaps make it up because it is funny. How often have you, someone who is not a comic, told a small lie and found a listener engaged or gullible? Once they have that hook in your story, how many times have you dragged it out, built upon it, in order to present a scenario that slowly dawns on your listener as being ridiculous? I’ve irritated plenty of girls doing just that.  A comedian like Louis CK, tells the story of his wife giving him “the world’s saddest hand job.”  The story is so exaggerated that we as a listener are left to wonder if it is even true.  A great comedian will make that territory a bit murkier and we are left with an impression that the story may just be true and may just be that funny. The State and one of the comedy groups that it begat, Stella, are very much based on this idea that the absurd or the untrue are at the heart of what’s funny, even if its obvious.  One of my favorite State sketches is a sketch simply called “And,” where a man who works at a magazine finds out that his coworker doesn’t know the word “and.”  This sort of situation is clearly “not true” and, in all likelihood, impossible, which makes it funny.

(Abbott and Costello always got in trouble with Mr. Fields or Mike the Cop.)

This sort of humor can be traced all the way back to Abbott & Costello, who eventually begat the comedy of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, or the comedy of Seinfeld.  The jokes here come from mundane situations that are slightly to majorly exaggerated—there is always an element of “untruth.”  Abbott & Costello episodes mostly center on the duo avoiding their landlord so they don’t have to pay the rent.  Let’s look at a few episode synopses to get a better picture of what I am referring to about this brand of comedy:

Barber Lou - Lou tries to give Bud a rubdown following instructions from a radio show, but he's tuned into a program explaining how to paint a car at home.

Pest Exterminators - Bud and Lou are pest exterminators who are mistaken for psychiatrists when they attend to Mrs. Featherton's "aunts".

Lou's Birthday Party - Lou throws a birthday party for himself, but nearly poisons his guests when he puts ant paste on his hors d'oeurves instead of antipasto. Bud throws him out and Lou consoles himself by ordering a giant decorated cake.

Each of these episodes is based around a pretty ordinary occurrence (Giving a “rubdown” years ago was part of a barber’s routine. Today, obviously it is a joke Tobias would have fallen into on Arrested Development, which we’ll get to.) that turns absurd.  The Abbott & Costello Show and the comedy of Abbott & Costello in their stage routines were both based on the comedy of errors that made something simple become absurd, something not “true” to life.  Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David have both openly admitted that Abbott & Costello influenced them.  You can easily break any Seinfeld episode down to an entertaining synopses such as the ones above (Jerry, Elaine and George get soup but Elaine antagonizes the owner of the store who is known as the “Soup Nazi”; Jerry and George take a limo from the airport that isn’t theirs but have to pretend to be Nazis, while Elaine and Kramer try to go to a basketball game).  There is the same exact formula: people living in an apartment building, in a self-contained universe interact with all the characters in that universe in situations that seem like normal day-to-day situations but are enhanced by absurdity.  Instead of Mr. Fields the landlord, in Seinfeld we have Newman, who Jerry is trying to avoid.  There is “Crazy” Joe Davola instead of Mike the Cop.  Seinfeld has The Maestro, Puddy or Mr. Costanza, while The Abbott & Costello Show had Stinky, the guy who wore a Lord Fauntleroy suit.  Their world resembles ours, but it isn’t ours, it isn’t true. Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld are hailed as being keen observers of the mundane, about revealing some kind of truth about people in general, through the situations they present in their shows.  However, there is a certain exaggeration of their respective shows and their self-contained worlds that leaves the viewer feeling a sense of exasperation, a sense of “Oh, come on!”  Seinfeld is less guilty of this than Curb Your Enthusiasm, but you already knew that.

("Look at banner, Michael!")

Arrested Development is a finer example of a show with an exaggerated, self-contained take of the everyday.  The world of Arrested Development is placed in the world of a wealthy family in California, but it is the dynamic of the family and Michael Bluth’s need to escape, yet still remain close to them that makes it seem so real to us. The “truth” of this situation is pulled away when we are introduced to characters such as GOB, Tobias, Buster, George Sr., Lindsay and Lucille.  What I mean to say is that these characters aren’t real; there is not real depth to them, which makes them funny.  There is nothing funnier than the Season 3 joke of George Sr. using a man as a “surrogate” of his presence in the other room of his apartment while he watches the baseball game in his room only a few feet away, especially when the Surrogate repeats his refrain of “Don’t come in here, I’m watching the game. Don’t come in here,” as the family opens the door to reveal George Sr. saying those words himself until he finally resigns, “I told you I was watching the game.”  What Arrested Development does to transcend this mere “falseness” is to build such a tightly referential world that at every turn, you are faced with some detail that reminds you of another part of the Arrested Development universe.  Season 2’s themes of hand (Buster loses his hand to a seal, has a hand chair in his room) and of seals (there is news of a seal attack on TV early in the season, Lucille’s name, Lucille “Lucille 2” Ostero’s name, Buster winning a seal in the claw game) are probably the most tightly constructed jokes in the history of TV or maybe in the history of comedy in general.  However, you can also say that about the running “Franklin” joke from Season 2 to Season 3, where Franklin, GOB’s black puppet, actually ends up being a pimp for the family prostitute — the pimp’s nickname is Mr. F, which was early used to describe Michael’s retarded girlfriend, Rita, and involved a similarly intricately wound joke on the identity of Mr. F, which ended up being Rita (Mentally Retarded Female).  Why go into all this detail about the jokes of Arrested Development when you can just rehash them with your own friends and have a lot more fun?  Because I want to prove the point that while the State were right in poking fun at the fact that you can easily break down what is “funny” and “not funny” to things that are “true” and “not true,” it can become confusing when you are simply enjoying the intricate jokes that a show like Arrested Development structures for you.

There are shows like Arrested Development, Seinfeld, The Abbott & Costello Show, The State, Stella, and even The Chris Elliot Show that revel in degrees of the absurd and pull off comedy that is truly enlightening (I’m not mentioning Monty Python because I don’t like Monty Python, although Cleese will always be the man in some way or another).  While Arrested Development and Seinfeld are much more polished, there is something in the acting of Stella or the State that has always appealed to me.  These comedians are clearly not good actors, but over time they developed an aesthetic of acting, something that is right-of-smartass that has become engrained and immediately accessible by my brain.  Its an attitude of “the world spins and continues around me, but I have the ability to separate from it, slow it down, and make a stupid face while trying to interact with people who are serious.”  There is nothing more juvenile than that sensibility, but it is something that can instill a great deal of invincibility in you. When I look to comedy, I look for “good” acting like that—which I can wrap my mind around—and also an absurdity that I can then take into the real world to make me better equipped to deal with assholes and people who are impatient or miserable.  What those shows like Arrested Development or moreso Stella taught me was the element of timing.  Comedy is airspace.  The air in any moment is made to insert comedy into.  You wait for pockets of timing, you listen to what others are saying and then you jump onto it, you repeat phrases, you listen to the spaces in the air and repeat a phrase in a way that is new to the people around you so it becomes funny—it is “not true” because it is not said the same way as something that was just perhaps said.  The next time you are with friends, try to notice this as you stand in a circle at a party or sit at a table for some dinner.  You all stand in relation to each other, you all have words to direct at each other in some angle or another and, in the spaces of those relationships, those intersections, you fit the jokes in. There is a rise of laughter and you slip in a perverted or dark phrase underneath the din; someone says a phrase, but you turn it so that it rhymes in a way.  That is elemental, but it is comedy.  Something as stupid as this party trick will work: next time you have a party, play a super popular song like “Hey Ya” or “Fuck You” two or three times in a row.  The first time, everybody is excited.  The second time you have some people still digging it and maybe it was a mistake it came on again.  The third time, people see that it’s a bit so you’ve drawn attention.  Then, you let three to four other songs play.  The rhythm of the party has resumed. People feel drunk, they chatter, they fall in love briefly or get hard-ons.  Then, you play “Hey Ya” or “Fuck You” one more time. And, that’s the joke.

(The Larry/David Duchovny storyline was a classic ongoing joke on The Larry Sanders Show.)

What this all leads to is the comedy that, to me, stands apart from anything else that’s funny and that is The Larry Sanders Show.  Sanders and Seinfeld were the twin pinnacles of comedy in the 1990’s and represent a sort of Stones/Beatles dynamic.  I don’t know which is which. Seinfeld was so wildly popular and critically accepted that you could call it the Beatles, while Sanders was darker and also critically acclaimed.  However, Sanders consistently surprised you like the Beatles and surprised you at such a high level.  When I watch The Larry Sanders Show, it reminds me of listening to the Beatles because I look for the little nuances. I look to see how Hank reacted in a certain scene the way I listen to why Ringo played the drums so curiously in that one little part on “Hello Goodbye” (both probably happy accidents) and I listen for nuances in Artie’s ass-kissing of Larry just the way I listen for that out-of-nowhere piano hook towards the end of “Dear Prudence” that I never heard before.  To basically spell it out and get my fawning out in the open, Garry Shandling’s brand of comedy on The Larry Sanders Show is the brand that I subscribe to more than any other. The characters seem to grow organically as the seasons go on.  Hank becomes so much of a pompous, stubborn and ignorant ass that you are surprised and delighted in a scene where Larry and Hank are in Hank’s car after Larry returns from his hiatus in Montana.  Hank has been a mess while Larry and the show have been on hiatus. Hank is smoking in his car and listening to heavy metal (two things his character hasn’t done) and Larry asks him to come back to the show.  Hank, who is hurt, gets this incredulous look in his eye and goes to mouth the phrase “You pulled the wool over my eyes.” Jeffrey Tambor’s acting shows that the character wants to use and say this phrase, but then ends up saying “You really pulled the rug out from me.”  It’s a heartbreaking and genius piece of comedy.  It might not make you laugh out loud, but it is funny precisely because it is true!  One of the peak moments of the show is the episode "Arthur After Hours" where we follow Artie, Larry’s rock-solid, ass-kissing, show-biz chiseled, producer after he gets mad at Larry when Larry makes him bump his friend off the show.  Artie is sick of being disrespected and taken for granted and we watch him get drunk in the studio and the office after everyone leaves. Artie loves the show and he loves show business, all of this we know because we know his character so well; we know his character so well after only about two or three episodes—the catchphrase of The Larry Sanders Show could just be Garry Shandling saying, “Artie?” in a helpless, panicked voice.  So it is funny and yet touching to watch him go through the paces of venting his anger and even coming to a sense of drunken brotherhood with a Russian janitor. Artie says at one point, “we’re brothers, you and me, because we both clean up messes.” And that is something so poignant Matthew Weiner would have written it on Mad Men.  Then, as Artie and the Russian janitor hug, Artie knocks the bottle of scotch they have been sharing to the floor, smashing the bottle.  He says to the janitor, “It’s alright, I’ll get the mop and you’ll clean it up.” He immediately breaks their bond and resumes the show hierarchy he was so upset about and he and the janitor begin to fight as the janitor says, “fuck you.”  The next day, Artie, with a band-aid on his forehead from his fight, returns to work the same as ever.  If you haven’t seen the show, there is no point in going on about jokes and episodes. What is important is the fact that this show treats sadness, darkness and comedy in equal lights.  Many may say that the British Office does the same thing. I have seen that show and it doesn’t make me feel the same levels of comedic glee while at the same time bringing me to a point of darkness and strangeness that The Larry Sanders Show does.  Shandling has said that the show is all about the characters and he pulled it off. You know each character, however small, in full, by the time you have finished only one season.  That makes it that much more enriching and thrilling when they do something unexpected or different or bad or good in a later episode. Its one of the strangest phenomena I can think of in any form of comedy I’ve watched.

In the end, The Larry Sanders Show makes me feel human, while Stella, The State, and to a lesser degree Arrested Development make me feel a false sense of juvenile invincibility that his hidden behind humor.  And the art that I’ve been the most thankful for, the art I have thrown myself most fully at, has been the art that reminds me I am human and that it is OK that I am that way (see Levin in Anna Karenina or Ulysses as a whole). Since comedy may the art that I love in some ways more than writing itself, I see it as only fitting that I grow into the type of sense of humor Garry Shandling and The Larry Sanders Show can offer.  And now you can thank my parents for making you sit and waste your time reading through all of this.