Wednesday, June 2, 2010

And yet it breathes

Having quit my job at EA (summary: it sucked) to write a book and do some part-time work, and having taken a week or so to coat my insides with an inch-thick layer of pot resin, this blog is resurrected. I've held off a little to wait for inspiration, but that's not really how the operation works. Writing is an activity that, at times, needs to be simplified. Like highboard diving (get on the board, keep walking until there's no more board) or pooping (sit on bowl, push), writing comes with inhibitions attached. At some point, you need to sit down and type. That is happening RIGHT NOW.

Downside of this approach: less-than-perfect narrative focus. Since we last sat together, I've had a couple minor adventures (lacking a sufficiently-cleft chin for Major Adventures, which--yes--must be capitalized) and played a lot of Bad Company 2. Let's talk about the adventures.

Sports Adventure! Went to my first MLB game: Giants vs. Astros with Tim Lincecum pitching. Baseball in person is better than baseball on TV, because there are more things to distract you. Between the giant glittery scoreboard, the pitching monitor, attractive women in tank tops and drunken screaming spherical fans (in the orange Giants jerseys they look like pumpkins!) there are a lot of things to take your mind off the fact that you are watching one of the more boring athletic events in human history. Thousands of years ago, Romans were having a better time than we are today at MLB games. Have the bullpen fight lions during the 7th inning stretch or something.

The distractions actually led to a phenomenon I didn't know was possible: losing track of the game at a live sporting event. If you watch baseball on TV, the tight home-plate shots and uninterrupted drone of John Miller's voice keep you invested in the play-by-play action. They force you to pay attention. Not so in person; in fact, you can easily get caught up looking at a cool sailboat in the Bay. When you look back at the field, five pitches and two attempted pickoffs have taken place. I figured they had to announce "STRIKE!" or "BALL!" every pitch. Not so. You can't even use the fans' reactions to judge a play, since they can't see anything either. Any friendly pitch within the same ZIP code as the batter ought to be called a strike unless it hits the ground before reaching the plate. And even then, you should call it a strike if the batter is an asshole. I will say that a home run, in person, is extremely exciting. We saw only one, but even that two-run shot in the second inning got my heart racing and was something special I hadn't anticipated. Certain things in life are just fundamentally different in person and no recorded experience can ever really match up. A Top 5, off the top of my head:
*A Great White Shark. Even the juvenile female they kept at the Monterey Aquarium for six months gave me chills. They are, for lack of a better phrase, perfect animals.
*MLB Home Run. Yeah, I just said it. Whatever.
*Niagara Falls. Go to the Canadian side; the New York side is filled with unsightly poor people and it smells funny. "That's the smell of quiet desperation, son!"
*Jared Leto. As a heterosexual male, I feel no shame in saying that you cannot take your eyes off Jared Leto in person. Rarely is a human face so constructed.
*Michaelangelo's David. You've seen a million pictures of this sculpture from every angle. I promise, nothing can prepare you to walk into the room in some Florentine cathedral where David is displayed. To start with, it's MUCH bigger than you think it is. From there, I default to the shark explanation. You just have to see it.

Best two surprises from the afternoon: a free burrito and a vicious sunburn. We bought horrible third-deck tickets but spent the game bouncing between unoccupied outfield bleacher seats--effectively granting ourselves a free upgrade to Business Class. However, our nosebleed seat section won a drawing for free Chipotle gift cards and we were able to use our crappy tickets to redeem them. They didn't even charge us for guacamole in those burritos. Fucking awesome. As for the sunburn, it was awesome because it wasn't mine. Rob, being extremely Irish and neither athletic nor outdoorsy, sat in direct sunlight for three hours. The burns were cracked and red and bubbling before we even left the park. No attempt to cover up or wear any sunscreen. I swear he smelled like bacon on Christmas morning.

Musical adventure! Dark Tranquility played Memorial Day evening in SF, and Nick was kind enough to go with me. I should point out that I do have friends; it's just that they, along with most other people of good taste, despise the music I love. DT was superb start to finish, and their rendition of "Terminus" to close out the set was life-altering. Despite being one of the bigger European death metal acts, DT plays small venues in the US and getting to see them at Slim's in SF was quite an experience. I enjoy large fired-up crowds as much as anyone, but I think I'd honestly rather be in a club of 300 psychotic fans than a theater with 5000 excited people. I spent most of the show three feet from the stage, and emerged covered in sweat and bruises. It was great, though I don't appreciate having to be a Mosh Pit Bulwark.

Quick explanation of the Mosh Pit Bulwark: in all metal shows, assholes will form circle pits that they use to slam together and hurt one another. Normal people on the edge of the pit are Bulwarks, preventing the pit from expanding and shoving idiots who run into the sides back into the middle. Being on the edge of a pit sucks because not only are you enduring collisions from sweaty drunken idiots on a regular basis--you are at risk, after enduring a particularly hard hit, of getting shoved yourself into the pit. And if you fall, you risk serious injury because pits never stop for falls any more. Time was, they always did and people inside the pits took each others' safety seriously. That no longer happens, and your average mosher is no better than an animal. On Monday, I spent most of the show in a pose that left my elbow presented to the pit. Anyone who touched me was getting a shot to the gut and kidneys. One woman in particular was shoving guys into the pit and trying to stir shit up. This sort of person, the kind who is eager to start things she has no intention of finishing, is a Cunt. She didn't react well to having the word thrown in her face, so I'm guessing she's new at this.

I did come away from the show with a quandary: why don't people like this? I mean the music, not the moshing. Having asked around, I get the impression that the lyrics and vocal style of metal are the big killers. We are conditioned by pop music to place vocals on a pedestal and treat them differently from other elements of the same song. In metal, this is less the case--though the familiar rock tropes of the chorus and the dynamic, exciting "frontman" are all in place. And by the way, DT's Mikael Stanne is a motherfucking bone fide rock star. It's the sort of thing you don't know about a frontman until you see him in person. If he'd hit a home run while onstage, that would have been really special. But why is such a talented, exciting and famous band playing 300-person shows in SF while Lady Gaga engorges stadia and corporate pocketbooks? While M.I.A does her own part to prove that talent and musical accomplishment are meaningless next to the power of vapid political statements and crude juxtaposition? My friend Alyssa wrote a piece for The Atlantic in Italics that discusses the idea in a different light. But from my own perspective, I don't understand why folks are so eager to swallow bombast and drama in the personas and fashion exploits of musicians (I suppose the proper term these days is "recording artist"), but so uncomfortable when those ideas get manifested in the songs themselves.

If I had to guess at an explanation, I'd say it's a question of baggage. Music is itself very light, and there are hordes of people who want nothing more from music than to shake their asses. Lady Gaga's outfits or M.I.A's faux populism are popular because they are "carry-on." They're small, they're light, they're easy to maneuver around and never become too inconvenient. Truly provocative statements--the kind that RATM made, for example--are real baggage. Powerful emotions like the mass catharsis you're likely to see at a metal concert (or a Christian Music bonfire, not to be confused with a Christian music Bonfire). They have to be considered, carefully packed, backed up with actions and baked into music, because otherwise you're just a big phony. But what if you could have just the trappings of rebellion, the spray-on makeup of provocation that gets washed off the minute you leave the stage? Now that's appealing. Fans with no interest in your agenda don't have to pay attention. Fans who want a little extra spice with their music can get it if they want it. This is youthful rebellion a la carte, and you'll forgive me for asserting that our society is worse-off for it. Genuine churn from the lowest age demographics is valuable and precious. Angst shouldn't be squandered, but as Rage themselves prophesied, "They got you thinking that what you need is what they sellin' / Make you think that buying is rebellin'."

But like the very pop music we've been discussing, this is all sound and fury signifying nothing. To even talk about Bene Gesserit street hooker Lady Gaga in a serious way lends her a credence she doesn't deserve. I wish there were some kind of higher philosophical purpose to her music--maybe by submitting to the Gom Jabbar for all nine minutes of the "Telephone" video, we could teach ourselves a thing or two about humanity.

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