Saturday, May 16, 2009

Rush: Fly By Night (1975)

The first thing I did when I got to college was join the Philosophy Club.

When I’d first visited campus in the spring of my senior year in high school, I had been fascinated by the student-activities bulletin boards outside in the quads, those hedgehogs of stickpins and staples, those rainbows of colored hand-made or cheaply-printed flyers, those cornucopias of stuff to do and things to be. And one of those flyers (pink with sober typewriting and a picture that I couldn’t identify because it had been photocopied fifty times from a newspaper) was for the Philosophy Club.

I wanted to join the Philosophy Club as both a thing to do and a thing to be. The Thing to Be was a Seeker (“I asked Bobby Dylan / I asked the Beatles / I asked Timothy Leary / But he couldn’t help me either,” sang the Who), an eighteen-year-old Searcher for Truth. As a new high school grad I hadn’t yet discovered Jack Kerouac or Allen Ginsberg, but I had read my share of Kurt Vonnegut, and watched the Woodstock movie on PBS.

So, yes, it was a pose, but in my defense that Thing to Be was counterbalanced by the Thing to Do, which was to find truth. I was, at this point, already in an advanced stage of metaphysical confusion, having rejected the Faith of my Fathers for My Own Code, but having grown up just enough to begin suspecting that My Own Code was code for Do What Thou Wilt, which wasn’t quite what I was after. Anyway, CSN/Y sang, “I don’t know who I am / But life is for learning,” and what better place to learn, I thought, than Queen Anne’s Hall Room 301, and what better time than 4:30 Thursday afternoon?

So I arrive, fresh-faced freshman wanting to fellowship with fellow seekers after truth, fellow philosophers (“you may call my love Sophia / I call my love philosophy,” sang Van Morrison). There are about a dozen people there. Some of them clearly know what’s going on (must be upperclassmen) and some of them are sitting quietly (must be other freshmen). I meekly find a seat and open my notebook.

The meeting starts. An upperclass girl stands up at the front, introduces herself as Ruth Loess – she’s only about five feet tall, thin and boxy, long shoe-polish black hair, black-framed glasses (unusual, as this was a good ten years before the Berkeley Look), black clothes – and says that since our faculty adviser Professor Carnation couldn’t be there today she’d be running the meeting. She welcomes the new members, and without further ado (such as asking who we were), gets down to Philosophy Club business.

Which was: organizing a trip to an upcoming anti-U.S.-Central-American-policy rally in D.C.

This was the height of Iran-Contra; certainly I had heard of the Contras, the death squads, the CIA, Nicaragua, Daniel Ortega, El Salvador, Somoza, Noriega; I was a fairly well-informed high school kid, and as a good aspiring hippie I espoused leftist positions, and was lucky enough to have parents I could argue with about them. Notwithstanding all of which, I was kind of dismayed to find that this was at the top of the Philosophy Club’s agenda, for a couple of reasons.

First, because in my question-everything mood, I was actually starting to doubt my political convictions. It was becoming plain to me that my high-school radicalism was a romantic pose. Not that I was becoming a Reaganaut, but I was becoming less sure of my own righteousness. I felt like for me, personally, it was time to step back and reexamine, not to march.

Second, and following from that, was this philosophy? I mean, Ruth Loess didn’t ask us what we thought about U.S. Central American policy. She didn’t invite us to analyze that policy’s philosophical underpinnings; nor did she offer any such analysis herself. She didn’t propose we think of U.S. Central American policy as a case study for questions of personal freedom and ethical citizenship. She didn’t even argue that we should participate in the rally. She just assumed that we would, that this was what the Philosophy Club was there for.

Okay, I’ll bite. “Excuse me, when are we going to discuss the philosophy?”

Ruth Loess gave me a blank look. Her veep, Forrest Blackwater, started passing out flyers for the rally. I walked out.

Cut to Friday afternoon, 5:45. I’m sitting in my dorm room, alone, my roommate having gone back home for the weekend. I have Yes’s Big Generator on the turntable: it just came out, and I’ve already listened to it about a dozen times. I listened to it all afternoon, while I was drawing on the door.

Out college had this tradition where students in the dorms were able to decorate their doors – the outsides of them – any way they wanted to. Personalize them. Some kids did, some kids didn’t. Some went all out: there was a door in the all-male dorm with an expertly rendered picture of the Cutty Sark box, one in one of the co-ed halls that had been transformed into an Esher. And then there was the one at the end of our hall that was a full-color rendition of the face on the cover of King Crimson’s first album. It would scare you shitless if you came upon it in the middle of the night unawares – it was infamous on campus – but I loved it. Nobody knew who had painted it: somebody who’d graduated long ago.

My roommate and I in my sophomore year turned the door into a joint project. We kept a magic marker around and asked every friend and visitor to add a bit of graffiti: a favorite saying or doodle. Of course neighboring idiots defaced it, but we kept that too. We saw it as a kind of collective unconscious made manifest. It became a bit infamous, too, and the next year they painted over all the doors.

But that was still in the future. First semester freshman year I was in a room with a virgin blue door. My roommate didn’t seem interested in decorating it, so I claimed the lower half for my own and spent that Friday afternoon with a black magic marker drawing the Yes bird-plane on it.

This is a design familiar to Yes fans and nobody else, because to see it you had to have not only bought Yes albums, but paid attention to the fine print. The cover of Fragile has a Roger Dean painting of a fragmenting green Earth and a strange winged contraption flying around it, looking like a cross between a mythical bird and the Wright Brothers’ airplane. The bird-plane as depicted on the front and back of Fragile is fluid, hard to define, but there was a miniature line sketch of it in the liner notes, a very organized presentation that was to show up in the liner notes of the next seven or eight Yes albums. They used it as a kind of colophon, although it never became as famous as the bubble-lettered Yes logo.

I always thought it was a perfect visual representation of Yes’s sound. It combined elements of machinery – they were a loud electric band sometimes, lots of synthesizers and distortion – with suggestions of organicity – they also had soft acoustic elements, and a strong emphasis on the fragile human voice. It combined utopian sci-fi - a spacegoing aircraft - with romantic poetry - a Bird. And it was a method of transport: if you could just find a way to climb in, oh the places you’d go.

So that’s what I drew on our door. I liked that it didn’t actually say “Yes” anywhere. I wasn’t advertising a band, but identifying with an aesthetic. Plus, I thought it complemented the King Crimson door.

It took me about an hour, and then I spun Big Generator again while I waited for it to be time to go to the dining hall. Alone. I hadn’t made any arrangements to go home for the weekend, and I didn’t know anybody at school yet, and my roommate was gone, so I was facing dining hall alone on a Friday night. I could already tell by the silence on the hall that campus had emptied out. This was not a heartening thought, but I tried to ignore it as I processed the new Yes album.

Halfway through Side 2 came a knock at the door. I opened it.

Two guys stood there. A tall towheaded guy in a blue-and-red tie-dye and a shorter guy with black curly hair wearing a pink Izod. I didn’t know them, but I recognized them: they had been in Philosophy Club.

“Oh,” says the alligator. “It’s you!”

“Huh?” sez I, eloquently.

“You’re the guy who walked out of Phil Club.”

“Uh, yeah. I did that thing.”

“I’m Vito, Vito Brevis,” he says. The other guy holds out a hand. “Art Long.”

I shake his hand, tell them my name. “Sorry I walked out like that. I just wasn't up for that.”

“No, no.” Art. “We’re not Philosophy Club Police or anything. Actually we walked out not long after you did, right around the time they started passing the hat.”

Vito chimed in. “Don’t get me wrong, I hate Reagan as much as the next guy, but I was hoping to, you know, sit around drinking Mad Dog 20/20 and talking about Plato in the cave or something. Not get ordered around by Marxists.”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with Marxists,” I say.

“Not that there’s anything wrong with Marxists,” Vito agrees. We all laugh.

“So anyway,” continues Art. “We weren’t actually looking for you, per se. We just saw the door and, well, we’re big Yes fans. Have been since junior high. We had to meet the person behind this door. Did you draw it?”

“He’s playing Big Generator, dude. I’d say he drew it.”

I did, I said. “So you guys are Yes fans, too? I didn’t think there were any here. I thought everybody was into U2 and REM. Not that there’s anything wrong with them, either –”

“Not that there’s anything wrong with them,” they laughed, eyeing the U2 banner my roommate had hung over the doorway.

“So anyway,” says Art. “Come to dinner with us. Let’s figure out this new Yes album.”

“And Marxists.”

“And U2.”

“And philosophy.”


Friday, May 15, 2009

Bob Dylan: "If You Ever Go To Houston"

Here's an interesting thread discussing some of the references in the song "If You Ever Go To Houston" on Dylan's new album.

The original article is lame, typical internet snark-masquerading-as-opinion-masquerading-as-
something-interesting-to-say, but then a commenter who actually knows what he's talking about shows up, and provides some actual, you know, information. It's entertaining watching the original poster lose control. It's the opposite of a lot of internet postings, where something substantive get hijacked by snarky comments: here the snarky post gets hijacked by substantive comments, and the poster panics. Heh.

Anyway, the comments explain an obscure reference in the song (Bagby and Lamar).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Throwing Muses: Chains Changed, The Fat Skier, and "Fish" (1987)

Sometimes I think Throwing Muses were the best band of the '80s. I don't have much use for their '90s work, after Tanya Donelly left; not that I think Tanya was all that, but like a lot of great bands I think the Muses were really fueled by the tension between two very different songwriters (Donelly and Kristin Hersh). Actually the Muses at their best were fueled by the Hersh/Donelly tension and the phenomenal rhythm section of Leslie Langston and David Narcizo. They were probably the weirdest of the musically sophisticated bands, and definitely the most musically sophisticated of the weird bands.

Weird: but it worked. Like how they solved the problem of the "difficult second album." Their first album, 1986's Throwing Muses, was a dark and disturbing masterpiece, critically acclaimed and modestly successful. Lots of pressure to follow it up.

So they just don't. Instead of making a proper second album, 1987 saw them releasing a four-song ep (Chains Changed) and then what amounted to another ep (The Fat Skier - seven songs, plus about fifteen minutes of baby noises). I guess you can get away with that kind of stuff when you're recording for 4AD records.

Brilliant move, although I have no idea if it was planned. Taken together that's eleven songs (one of which was a repeat from the first album, though), a full album's worth, but without the pressure of making a full-album statement. These were just eps, or an ep and an oddity: reduced expectations.

It helps that the songs are awesome. Chains Changed is four of the most maddeningly catchy and cathartic records they ever made. The Fat Skier, meanwhile, is a valid advance on the first-album templates, trancelike dirges and bruising psychic workouts.

But the real brilliant move (well, commercial suicide, but artistic brilliance) was tucking the best song away on a label sampler. "Fish," released on Lonely Is An Eyesore. (The official video for the song is pretty trippy, too - takes me back to late Saturday nights watching MTV's 120 Minutes in the dark on weekends home from college) but I don't like the version of the song it uses as well as the one on the sampler.)

This is a masterpiece, sez I, and a perfect encapsulation of everything I love about Throwing Muses. It's some kind of crazy postmodern reel, driven by this unstoppable and just plain odd rhythmic figure (Narcizo and Langston at their absolute tightest), matched by some serious rhythm-guitar deviltry, with Hersh's banshee vocals cutting through everything. It's like a ghost dance for your head (on your head?). Unbelievable. Turn it up.

Bonus meaningless anecdote: I saw the Muses in a little club in DC in '89 (the 9:30), on the Hunkpapa tour, and I was close enough to the stage that when I got my companions to join me in shouting out requests for "Fish," Kristin gazed out in our general direction and said, "We don't even know that song anymore." However: when they released a live album in '92, "Fish" was on it. I'm not taking credit, but...

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Blogging the Dollhouse: Episode 12: Omega

What do we know?

1. I think we can start to put together a timeline.

At some point, a few years before we follow Boyd into the Dollhouse, the Rossum Corp. develops the Dollhouse technology, i.e. the ability to wipe, extract, and implant personalities. They use convicts as test subjects. The tests go well, they feel, and so they commercialize the technology, launching the Dollhouse. One (at least) of the convict test subjects is employed as a doll-for-hire now: Carl Craft. Craft was a serial killer in the making, arrested after slashing up a woman’s face, but before killing her. As a doll, he’s known as Alpha.

Some unspecified number of months or years later, Alpha is sent on an engagement for which he’s paired with another doll, Whiskey. The client’s wishes have something to do with being taken along on a crime spree by a pair of Natural Born Killers, but Alpha and Whiskey go a little off their brief and start torturing the client. As he’s pleading for his life, the client tells Alpha that he (Alpha) isn’t real.

Not long thereafter, Alpha begins to develop a self-consciousness that survives the wipes. He has man reactions to a new doll, Echo. In a misguided display of chivalry, he slashes Whiskey’s face, so that Echo can be the new #1 doll. Dollhouse staff subdue him, and put him in the chair. Topher, in an effort to discover which if any of Alpha’s previous imprints might have left a residue that could explain this, begins cycling through these imprints while Alpha is in the chair. Meanwhile, Alpha attacks his handler, Topher loses control of the program, and all of Alpha’s previous personalities are downloaded into him at once. This is his composite event. He kills his handler, Dr. Saunders (the real one) when the doctor strays into the lab, and a few other staff members. He then smashes his own personality backup, i.e., the Carl Craft persona.

I think it’s also at this time that he kills others in Echo’s sleeping chamber, leaving her alive. I.e., the massacre that happened just before the show starts is the same one that we see beginning in this episode’s flashbacks.

I think. That makes the timeline weird, because the flashbacks are labeled “a few years ago,” and I don’t think they cover years of time, and I don’t think the series itself has covered years of time, meaning the total elapsed time from the NBK engagement to the present can’t be more than a year or so. It’s possible that Alpha went away for a while, came back and killed some people, and then went away again, but in this episode Topher and Adelle are both acting like Alpha’s violent eruption was the killing spree, i.e. their only encounter with composite Alpha before he came back in Episode 11 to take Echo. Ergo, the blood on the floor in Episode 1 is from the flashbacks we’re seeing in this episode.

In the aftermath of that massacre, the Dollhouse staff see an opportunity to fill a sudden vacancy in their ranks while simultaneously getting some use out of the broken doll Whiskey: they imprint her with a modified Dr. Saunders persona and make her the doctor.

At this point, Boyd joins the staff. Why? We don’t know for sure, but in Episode 12 he hints that it had to do with a girl – “there’s always a girl” – and watching the way Ballard joins the team, we begin to suspect that Boyd is there for similar reasons. Either he joined as the price of freeing someone, or he joined so he could protect someone; in any case, he’s morally opposed to the Dollhouse, but willing to work with it (within it) for what he sees as a greater good.

Alpha’s still out there, thinking his many and varied thoughts and sitting around watching videos of Caroline. Meanwhile, in a process we’ve been witnessing, Echo fumbles toward awakening. Alpha decides, for some reason, to involve Agent Ballard. He feeds Ballard’s Dollhouse obsession by furnishing him clues about Caroline. Eventually he’s got Ballard where he wants him, and he uses Ballard to help him gain access to the Dollhouse.

Why does Alpha need Ballard’s help to get in? This is unclear. Did Alpha not remember where the Dollhouse was? Possible, but unlikely. I hope this becomes clear in a future episode (if there are any), because at the moment it’s a puzzle. In any case, he enlists Ballard, and with him enters the Dollhouse. While Ballard is fighting Boyd, Alpha takes Echo. But first he imprints Echo with the persona Whiskey had inhabited in the NBK engagement. Why? As Alpha says, he needed Echo to be bold and violent so they could make their escape. From what we later learn about Craft, we can also wonder if Alpha isn’t most comfortable with that kind of persona, and indeed if being imprinted with such a persona wasn’t what spurred his awakening – it was too close to Craft’s real self. Lots of interesting questions to ponder with that…

All of that brings us up to this episode. Wherein we discover that Alpha considers himself an ubermensch, the next step in human evolution: a god. And he wants a goddess. Bride of Frankenstein stuff. So he tries to recreate his own composite event with Echo: by downloading all her previous personas into her head at once, he tries to make her a being like himself, and he renames her Omega. (Why? In Revelations, God calls himself the alpha and omega – i.e., the a-to-z, the whole shebang.)

He has the hard drive containing the Caroline persona, and he inputs this into the body of Wendy, a girl they’ve kidnapped. His plan is for Omega, who he presumes will be psycho like himself, to kill the girl containing Caroline, and then to smash the hard drive, thus freeing herself from her puny mortal single-self past once and for all, as Alpha has done for himself. But Omega isn’t interested. She attacks Alpha. His dreams smashed (along with his testes), he reverts to Craft’s original impulses: he threatens to go on a killing spree, slashing up women’s faces. Alpha kills Wendy. Echo chases Alpha.

He gets away. But Echo and Ballard rescue the Caroline hard drive. But Echo chooses not to be free: we see her undergoing a wipe, and assume that she has volunteered to return to the Dollhouse. Why? Because she wants to fulfill her contract? Because she wants to work to bring down the Dollhouse from within? Because she feels it will be the safest place to continue working on her enlightenment? We don’t know. But the last thing the supposedly-wiped Echo says before we fade to black is “Caroline.” She’s not a blank slate.

Meanwhile Ballard has, like Boyd before him, decided to join the Dollhouse as a contractor. His price is Mellie/November’s freedom, with full payment.

Do I have this straight?

2. This show may not be back. Cancellation is hanging over Dollhouse like the sword of Damocles, and I fear the fox’s teeth are too sharp for the horse-hair. If it doesn’t come back, we still have Episode 13 to look forward to on DVD, and a satisfying climax to Season 1. But if it does come back, we have a lot of tantalizing loose threads to pull us onward.

Let’s start with Mellie/November. Surely she’s going to realize, once she gets out, that five years haven’t passed. That she got released early, and that maybe that nice man who wouldn’t tell her his name had something to do with it. We haven’t necessarily seen the last of her.

Ballard and Boyd, meanwhile, have the makings of a good partnership. I never saw it coming, especially when they were slugging it out in Episode 11 (although in retrospect maybe that should have been the tip-off), but when they started cooperating in the last half hour of this episode, it really worked. The characters have enough contrast in attitude, personality, and method to make an attractive screen pairing, without (so far) descending into buddy-cop silliness.

Topher and Whiskey. Episode 12 dropped clear hints that they have some kind of past together. No idea what it is. Would love to find out.

Then of course we have Caroline’s background (still a mystery), Echo’s awakening (still, perhaps, unconsummated), and Alpha’s revenge (he’s still out there). Not to mention Sierra’s past (as a doll sold into slavery) and Victor’s future (as a damaged doll).

Lots of possibilities for a second season.

3. How great was it that the engagement that seems to have started it all for Alpha was inspired by Natural Born Killers? I say “inspired by” although of course that film isn’t mentioned by name. But it seems all too obvious that the client, Lars, was inspired by that film, and there’s the brilliance, because remember all the controversy about that movie and the murders it supposedly inspired? Remember how that movie itself was posing as a critique of the way the media sensationalizes violence, even as it sensationalized violence? Lars thinks it’s all a game, and of course he’s right: “Bobby” and “Crystal” aren’t real. But they’re real enough to (almost) kill him. And to (possibly) inspire another killer (Craft) to slash his way out of virtuality into reality. The cycle of media-inspired-violence/ violence-inspired-media/ fantasy-unable-to-distinguish-between-them here is too tight to completely unroll, and it’s perfect for Dollhouse’s critique of contemporary America.

Of course Natural Born Killers isn’t the only film referenced in the Bobby and Crystal scene. The use of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” links it to David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. But since I haven’t seen that movie yet (I feel guilty about that, all of a sudden), I can’t say what that means.

4. We finally know where Dollhouse stands on the question of a soul. Soul is the word for it, too. Ballard, trying to profile Alpha, tells Topher he doesn’t think all their technology can erase a person’s soul. Topher gives a snarky little laugh, and with all we’ve seen in twelve episodes, we might catch ourselves laughing along with him, but we’d be wrong. I mean, what else do you call the thing that remains in Alpha after the Craft persona has been destroyed, hard drive and all, the thing that reasserts itself through the interference of dozens of other imprints and makes him want to slash women’s faces? The same thing that makes Echo, under the weight of thirty-eight imprints, and with her own personality as Caroline physically inhabiting another body, not want to slash anybody up? It’s well established that consciousness is interchangeable, but we’re forced to realize here what Boyd has been suspecting all along and what Paul instinctively assumes: there’s something in a human being, some core of identity, that’s too deep to be extracted. Bodies and souls are not completely interchangeable. Identity is not a set of Legos. You are you, and that includes proclivities to good and evil.

This is why I found this episode, this ending, so satisfying despite the fact that much of the show’s narrative remains open-ended. We don’t know what happens to any of these characters, and we still don’t know why most of them are doing what they’re doing, and most of all we still don’t understand completely what the hell’s going on.

But Dollhouse isn’t about the story. It’s about what it’s about: what in Buffy we called the subtext. Dollhouse is, as I’ve said before, science fiction of the highest order, in which ideas and their implications are the real engine driving the story. Plot events are just the means by which those ideas are expressed. And here at the end of Episode 12, we can see the fundamental questions of Dollhouse (human identity, the nature of consciousness and personality, freedom and control) all coming into sharp focus. We’re not given answers, but we’re given questions, clearly expressed. It’s exciting, to me.

5. Which is not to say that Dollhouse is lacking in narrative interest, intriguing characters, witty dialogue, or any of the other species of goodness we’ve come to expect of Joss Whedon.

It’s true that I’m connecting with Dollhouse on a completely different level than that on which I connected with Buffy. So far there’s nobody in this show whose personal trials could move me to tears the way Willow’s did in Season 6 of Buffy, or whose death would bum me out as much as Doyle’s did in Season 1 of Angel. But there’s potential there, should they get a chance to realize it: Boyd, Ballard, Whiskey, even (with his poignant last scene with Whiskey) Topher.

And this show displays the same utter mastery of tone that Whedon’s early triumphs did. The way Alpha’s monologues in this episode manage to be both psychotic and cute (“I’m not bluffing – well, he is, but the rest of us aren’t!”), the way humor punctuates even the tensest of moments (pointing the gun at the hard drive and saying “I’ll blow your brains out” – funny), his way of overcooking dialogue to just the right degree. “I want my brain back! I want back in my brain!” Things like this just should not be said. I love that he has characters say them. The writing, in other words, is excellent.

In short, I’ve found it entertaining in ways that I expected, as well as a whole lot of ways I hadn’t. Above all it’s intelligent, which I had expected. It’s easily the best thing on TV right now. I hope to Omega it doesn’t get canceled.