Saturday, January 31st 2004

The Commonwealth of Massa-$%@#!-chusetts
posted @ 12:50 pm in [ ]
Now that John Kerry has surged into the lead for the Democratic Presidential nomination, the nation has again turned its attention to Massachusetts politics. As well it should. In the cradle of the American revolution, politics is still a spectator sport. Government means something, and is much more in the hands of the people than it is elsewhere in the country. As usual, though, there are some things about Massachusetts and its politics that outsiders just don’t get, and it’s, well, really frickin’ annoying.

For one thing, over the past week, I have heard more pundits rave about Kerry having been Dukakis’ Lt. Gov. (prounouced, “Lite Guv”) than I ever heard about it while it was going on–and I LIVED in Massachusetts then. The fact is, in Massachusetts, the Lieutenant Governor is elected separately from the Governor. I would blame the lack of good high school civics programs in this country, but George-flippin’-Will is old enough to have had one of those, and he still rants about it like he doesn’t know any better. Because apparently, he doesn’t.

It’s like when you’re watching a movie set in Massachusetts, and they’ve gone to all the trouble of making all the details work and be convincing about the fact that this movie really is set in Massachusetts (except for the really horrible accents), right up until the Wedding Scene. And in the Wedding Scene, the officiator says, “Then by the power vested in me by the state of Massachusetts…” and it makes any native Masshole cringe. Massachusetts is a COMMONWEALTH, okay? NOT a state. There are enough commonwealths that we should all know which ones are which.

It’s the same kind of thing. Basic political ignorance. Because we’re political junkies in Massachusetts, it is that much more annoying. We know when YOUR state is really a commonwealth. We know when YOUR electoral process is hinky. Take this election as an opportunity, willya, pundits? That, or take a damn civics class. You sound like a bunch of retaahds.

Saturday, January 17th 2004

How I learned to stop worrying and love the twang
posted @ 12:44 pm in [ - ]
Ladies and gentlemen–I think that takes in most of you [insert Groucho cigar wag here]–I have a request. Our fabulous hostess Lisa has expressed an interest in learning to embrace the faith… of country music.

Now, if you’re from most of America, liking country music is sort of natural, like liking Pepsi or liking hamburgers. It’s just sort of part of the American landscape, it’s around, and you get sort of a taste for it after a while if it’s not already innate. But as Lisa mentioned in our travel blog over the summer (this is actually one of my favorite postings of hers, it’s right here on August 4th), if you’re from New England, especially urban New England, it’s a whole ‘nother ball of wax. I quote:

“When I was younger I was filled with misconceptions about the United States. For one thing, I thought I lived there. After traveling, I now realize that I don’t really live in the US: I live on top of a small geologic figure that accidentally got grafted onto the East Coast after getting lost on a museum tour with its fellow Europeans.”

So true! And in the case of country music, true of the much of the urbanized eastern seaboard. Go inland 20 miles and people can’t get enough of the stuff (we have both types of music here, country AND western). But where Lisa and I are from, nary a twang. Lisa also has an excellent point in that getting into country music can be a lot like getting into science fiction: potentially lots to pour through to get to the good stuff. So I will describe my conversion and a conversion in which I participated, and hope that offers some guidance.

Now, the first thing to know is that the current pop-country crap you get on the radio sux. Don’t bother. The second thing you need to know is that country is a broad genre like classical: there are so many zillions of sub-genres, you are bound to find something you like. And once you like that one thing, the rest of the larger genre starts to sound pretty good, too–what was once grating and corny sounding starts to sound sort of gentle and genuine. So the trick to country conversion is to find that one thing you like, and the rest will just fall into place. Finally, the best reason to like country music is a lot like the best reason to like the blues: it’s very genuine, honest stuff. It’s also uniquely American, with a sense of individualistic pride, so everybody’s experience is a little different. I’ve told parts of this story on our travel blog, but here’s how it happened to me.

It was 1992. I had just graduated from college (in fact, I think I missed Lisa’s graduation party at which a cheerful priest grabbed her head in a bless-and-stun manuver). My dad and I drove to Albuquerque to my godfather’s wedding. I was a tragically hip 21-year-old in cotton, Spandex, and cotton Spandex, mostly black. We took turns choosing tapes to play in the tape player of the 1978 Mercury Grand Marquis my dad drove at the time (which was, sadly, demolished by some out-of-control speeding Fitchburg cop on a wet curve a couple of days before my wedding). I picked cool stuff. My dad invariably picked country.

Now that I think about it, those were mix tapes–I bet he sensed the opportunity for conversion and was trying to hit on the one thing that would get me hooked–on purpose! The landscape probably helped a little: America flattening, rolling, broadening, and finally baking outside the window. All the way there, I winced every time it was his turn to pick a tape. It might have grown on me a little.

Once we got to Albuquerque, though, something clicked into place. I’ve always liked the desert, mostly because it’s suprising and spooky. Albuquerque is a friendly city with great food, long, broad boulevards and music pouring out of most of its orifices. Not quite as much as New Orleans, where all that tuneage overlaps and you are never out of earshot of a brass instrument, EVER, but certainly melodic. Even McDonald’s had a country station on.

One night, we went to a huge dance club. We don’t get those “back east”. (I use quotes because here in Denver, “back east” starts in Aurora. Yeah, go look at a map. It’s funny.) It was the largest enclosed structure I had ever been in, and the dance floor alone was bigger than my high school’s gymnasium. People danced only in couples, even during the fast songs. There were scores of tables and multiple well-attended bar counters inside and also several giant screen TVs showing rodeo, which I had never seen. Seriously, more foreign than anywhere I had ever been.

There was a single live band (Denim Blue, maybe?) playing mostly newish country, which was still pretty good then. I got asked to dance by a cute cowpoke or two, and I learned to two-step that night. Somehow, in the right setting, the twanginess wasn’t quite so grating–it just sounded like regular music. Plus, it was a really fun time, kind of an anthropological expedition turned party. Everybody was nice. The liquor was cheap by east coast standards. The band was musically good by any standard. I had a great time.

After that, I heard the country tapes my dad picked in the car differently. I listened to the ones I thought had been kinda funny again, and man, they were hilarious: “Had the lit end of a cee-gar pressed against my belly / whupped m’ head with a crowbar ’til my eyeball turned to jelly / Had a toothache so severe my jawbone split in twoooooo…. / But nothin’s ever hurt me half as bad as losin’ youuuuuu!” That remains one of my favorites. After that, other stuff started to appeal to me: Garth Brooks’ “Rodeo,” some of the old-timey-sounding stuff that came out in the 70s that my dad used to listen to when I was a kid, it all stopped sounding like country and more like regular music. And after that happened, it was hard not to like it.

I used that same eyeball-whuppin’ song to help convert Phillip. He heard it, he liked it, and then when he heard Joe Diffy, (”Junior’s in Love”, “Pickup Man”) he liked that a lot too, and it was all over. Now he can’t get enough of Dwight Yoakam, whose sound I would describe as next gen Bakersfield. Kinda hard core, you ask me. He also got to like George Jones after he found out that George Jones makes most of the rowdy rockers he grew up admiring for their badness look like a bunch of preschoolers waiting for the bus to the zoo. And everybody likes Johnny Cash. “But I shot a man in Reno, just to watch him diiiie” indeed!

Anyway, since most country radio stations these days play a pale, bubble-gummy shadow of country music, I don’t recommend them. Find a terribly local station on the Internet to see if something grabs ya. If you can’t find anything local enough (and you may not–most of the best stations are probably not on there) and you don’t have time for a long, cross-country drive looking for one, I recommend your local used record store. Especially on the eastern seaboard, the used country CDs are going to be cheap enough to afford to buy a few things you don’t end up liking. I recommend “greatest hits” albums, or better yet, mixed-artist ones, to get a feel for stuff you might like. Then, get more of that. This is actually a good tip for getting a taste for just about any genre. Root around through the “various artists” section until something looks good, A Bunch of Artists All Cover This One Guy’s Great Stuff. And sure, go ahead and buy a few albums based on goofy titles. Country music has a pretty good sense of humor about itself. Like many novelty songs, though, sometimes they’re only one-liners, but sometimes they’re well crafted too. It’s kinda hit or miss.

Beyond that, a few suggestions: Chris Isaak can help with a sticky transition from rock to country, being sort of on the edge of the genres himself, and his stuff is bluesy, passionate and cool (”Wicked Game”, “Baby Did a Bad Bad Thing”) however you want to label it. Dwight Yoakam is musically terrific, ranges from rockabillyish to true country, and is sometimes pretty darned hilarious. Johnny Cash is always fun, as previously mentioned, and everybody knows a Johnny Cash song, and of course, there’s a reason why Garth Brooks outsold Elvis as a recording artist. If you’re going to go for folks who are on the radio now, I’d look for their earlier stuff. Shania Twain’s current stuff is indistinguishable from adult pop, but her older stuff is pretty cool. I remember hearing “No One Needs to Know Right Now” and thinking it sounded very Buddy Holly influenced, both musically and in its sweetness. I liked Dolly Parton as a kid, and I like her now, too (even though as an adult I bear a striking physical resemblance to the unfeeling “Jolene”). She has a terrific voice if you’re into female vocalists at all. Finally, there are some crossover albums out there that may help you come into the fold, albums put together by country artists and blues artists doing duets and such of familiar songs (I think I have one of them called “Rhythm Country & Blues”). Those albums are nice no matter what you like, so they’re a good thing to have in your music library anyway, and then you can turn yourself on to artists on there you really liked.

Like most conversions, though, it’s sort of personal and hard to say exactly what will work for someone else. But the twang will find you if you want it to.

Thursday, January 15th 2004

The Navy is also a crappy correspondent
posted @ 4:24 pm in [ - ]
So a couple of postings ago, I mentioned that I had applied for a linguist job with the Navy. This caused no small amount of consternation with some of you, until I explained that my intent was to get the Navy to pay for me to learn a bunch of languages, and then at my earliest opportunity, run off and use my skills for peaceful purposes, thus both doing good works AND screwing the military-industrial complex. There, that’s better, isn’t it?

One of my very first postings, from September of 2002, mentioned the only other time I voluntarily contacted the Navy. I called the Pacific Fleet Op Center to get the skinny on time zones in the hopes of subsequently teaching emergency broadcast equipment how to deal with them (yes, not unlike teaching a pig to sing). That guy was delightful. The folks in the human resources end of things, though, not so good. They should be, because the idea of humans as a resource takes on a much more ominous implication for the military, doesn’t it? They should be really happy that people are calling them at all, and thrilled to pieces when the callers in question aren’t requesting the Office of Cannon Fodder (or OCF in military parlance).

So the Navy gave me the impression that they thought I was quite the rock star, based on my resume, which, to be fair, is true. They emailed me with a number to call for a phone interview, which I did. However, they did not answer their phone, perhaps because they were busy determining how well another applicant could take a shark bite, and they failed to call me back ever again. So I didn’t take a job with the Navy, in part because they’re only slightly better with the contact thing than the deceased whom I mention in my last posting.