Saturday, December 29, 2012

Ray Collins (1936-2012)

The original lineup of the Mothers of Invention. That's Ray in the upper right hand corner.

I was very sorry today to learn of the passing of Ray Collins, who along with Frank Zappa founded one of the greatest rock groups in American history, the Mothers of Invention. As a way of paying tribute to Ray, I'd like to play you a particular favorite of mine from the group's catalog. It's a track called "I'm Not Satisfied" from the Mothers' 1968 album, Cruising with Ruben and the Jets. Zappa's interest at the time was in creating outrageous musical satire, while Collins wanted to make what he called "beautiful music." Both traits are evident in this track. Zappa crafted the Cruising album as an over-the-top parody of 1950s rock, but you can hear the sincerity in Ray's voice as he sings the plaintive lyrics.

Before we go, I'd like to play just one more tune for you that showcases Ray's skills as a songwriter. It's a doo wop number called "Memories of El Monte," which Frank and Ray wrote for the Penguins (of "Earth Angel" fame) in the years before the Mothers came into existence. I think you can hear the love and respect that both Collins and Zappa had for the Penguins and their lead singer, Cleve Duncan, who unfortunately also passed away in November 2012. It's a great goddamned record, that's for sure.

P.S. - Just one more. I couldn't end this Ray Collins tribute without including this perfect parody of lounge singer crooning from the Mothers' sophomore album, Absolutely Free. Enjoy.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Joe's Terrible Songs #2: "The Most Pitiful Country Song Ever"

One last post before I leave for the Christmas holiday.

This is the second in my proposed series of brief, terrible songs -- hastily written and haphazardly recorded. This one is an original, lamentably. I decided to record my version of a country song, and I think I hit on a heartbreaking romantic scenario which has thus far been ignored by the Nashville establishment. Before you get all PC on me, two things: (1) I'm well aware that "conjoined" is the preferred term, but it didn't fit with my melody. (2) How do you know the people in the song aren't actually from Siam? Okay, Siam has been known as Thailand since 1939, but maybe the people in the song are traditionalists. Did you ever think of that? Look who's being close-minded now. In all seriousness, I hope you have a happy holiday in spite of having just heard this song.

Friday, December 21, 2012

The Nativity: A Sheep Remembers

"You think I get any royalties on this stuff? HA! Don't I wish?"
by Larry the Sheep (as told to Joe Blevins)
Well, the whole thing was a huge nuisance if you ask me.

If I'm being totally honest, that's my first thought when someone brings up the subject of that particular evening. I had to laugh when I heard that song of yours, "O Holy Night." "Yeah, right," I thought. "Wholly inconvenient."

Before you churchgoers out there start judging me, try and look at this from my perspective. There I was, enjoying a nice supper out of the manger (which is just a fancy word for "trough") when all of a sudden, I'm pushed aside so that this mewling infant can have a place to sleep. I said to them, "Excuse me! Someone was already using this manger, thank you!" But apparently, they didn't speak sheep. And to top it off, the little brat was glowing like Chernobyl. How are you supposed to go about your daily business of being a sheep with something like that going on?

"It was a garage, really."
It's funny. When you humans say that someone was "born in a barn," you mean that he has no manners. And yet, the guy you all seem to like best really was born in a barn! I never understood why that was such an insult. I mean, among my kind, it's a point of pride to have been born in a barn. It's a sign of class and sophistication. When I see a really suave, well-mannered sheep, I always say to myself, "He must have been born in a barn."

Actually, to be blunt, the place was more like what you'd call a garage nowadays. People didn't have cars back then, so they'd travel around by camel if they were rich or by donkey if they weren't. The guests of the inn used the barn out back to park their vehicles, so to speak.

A few of us animals lived there on a more or less permanent basis. I say "more or less" because your time there was definitely limited. The innkeeper and his wife were raising us, to be sure, but not as pets. We sheep provided wool for clothes and the cows gave milk, naturally, but we all shared a common destiny: the dinner table. Don't get me wrong, though. I don't blame the humans. Look, it's a rough world. You do what you have to do to survive. If sheep could raise people for food, we would.

The innkeeper gets a bad rap out of this. I feel sorry for him, really, in spite of the fact that he wound up eating me. He's portrayed quite badly in the Nativity story, and it's just not fair. No, he didn't have any free rooms at the inn. But it was a goddamned census weekend! I mean, what did Mary and Joseph expect? If they'd wanted a room so badly, they could have easily made a reservation in advance like everyone else! Honestly, Joe should have known better. Bethlehem was his hometown, for Christ's sake! It's not like today, where there's a Holiday Inn every fifteen feet.

You'd think that, since he was from Bethlehem, Joseph might have had some relatives who could have put him up for the night. An uncle, a cousin... somebody! Maybe he didn't get along with this relatives. That's really none of my business.

My point is that the innkeeper wasn't the bad guy you all think he is. I mean, I knew the guy -- Irv, we called him. Maybe not a saint, but not a monster either. He was being awfully nice to let Joseph and Mary stay in his garage. It was better than being out in the cold, and he charged them exactly nothing for it. Zero. Nada. Zilch. Free lodgings for the night. Irv could have told them to hit the bricks -- I would have, if I'd been him -- but he didn't. He couldn't very well evict one of his paying customers, so he did what he could under the circumstances. And look at the thanks he gets!

The Magi: three very posh blokes.
Meanwhile, there's another one of your songs,"Silent Night," that completely and utterly misrepresents the events of that evening. It was anything but silent. And I don't just mean the baby either, though he cried like he was being paid by the decibel. No, the real commotion was caused by all those visitors. It was like Grand Central Station that night, I swear to you! It seemed like uninvited guests were falling from the sky.

First it was the shepherds. Now, I didn't have too much personal experience with shepherds, having been raised by Irv and his wife. But I've talked to sheep who'd been in flocks, and let me tell you, the word of mouth was not good. I don't want to get too graphic here, but let's just say that shepherds get lonely sometimes and look for affection wherever they can find it. So I was a little edgy when a few of those guys started showing up. I thought they might be looking for love in all the wrong places, so to speak.

And if that wasn't bad enough, then the goddamned Magi dropped by. Now those three were -- there's no delicate way to put this -- high as kites when they arrived. I don't know what they'd been smoking, but you should have heard some of the garbage they said that night. I honestly think they carried that frankincense around with them to cover up that tell-tale smell, sort of like how hippies use patchouli. But you could tell these guys were well off, just by the way they were dressed. I figured them to be the idle rich with nothing better to do than follow stars around and barge into people's garages without being asked.

Between the baby, the shepherds, and the Magi, you could barely get a bleat in edgewise that night. And to top it all off, this total psycho named Gabriel staggered in, claiming to be an angel with a message directly from God. I'd heard enough by that point, so I just found a corner, curled up, and tried to get some sleep. When I woke up, Mary, Joseph, and the baby were gone, but a few of the shepherds were still there, having passed out during the night. And I think that two of the Magi had left the third one behind. His camel was missing, so the last time I saw him he was trying to hitchhike back home. I don't know if he ever made it. Frankly, I didn't much care.

I know it sounds like I'm being very blasé about all of this, but I honestly had no idea what was going on that night. In retrospect, I wish I'd paid more attention. Lord knows I've been asked about it enough bloody times. But we sheep are a practical bunch and don't go in much for this mysticism of yours. I didn't have what you'd call a "spiritual" experience that night. I just thought of it as a perfectly good meal wasted and a night's sleep interrupted. 

I do have a bit of a chuckle every year when I see myself depicted on calendars, Christmas cards, figurines, posters, pop-up books, and every crappy piece of merchandise you can imagine. Not that I'm resentful, mind you. It's my one claim to fame in an otherwise unremarkable life. Sometimes it's a hassle, but I've actually come to enjoy the fame over the years. Still in all, I wouldn't mind getting a cut of the royalties. Fat chance of that happening.

But a sheep can dream, can't he?

This year's can't-miss gift: the abacus!

An abacus: get one of these babies now while they're still affordable!

Are you still puzzling over what to get people for Christmas this year? Well, puzzle no more, dear reader! I have the answer. Simply get everyone on your list an abacus.

"An aba-wha?" you might be saying right now. Relax. Let me explain.

An abacus is a simple yet ingenious calculating tool consisting of a frame and beads which slide on wires or dowels. Dating back to 2500 B.C., it is the precursor to the calculator and, thus, the computer. Think about that for a moment: the abacus is the original computer! Version 1.0. Compared to the abacus, the Commodore 64 is a newbie poseur. Although generally considered obsolete here in the West, the abacus is still crazy hot in Japan, where it's known as a soroban and is in common use by children whose math skills put most Americans to shame. There might be something to this. We're so used to letting machines do all our math for us these days that maybe we should have to physically move beads around to do simple addition and subtraction. We've gotten lazy, and our minds have turned to instant oatmeal as a result. Just watch this video to feel instantly humbled:

Insufferable people like this will soon be everywhere.
Congratulations, Einstein. You just got your ass handed to you by a 7-year-old girl. But that's not why I'm recommending the abacus as the ideal gift for 2012. Yeah, they're educational and help strengthen our brains, but screw all that. Instead, I'm recommending it because I have the sneaking suspicion that, within a year's time, abaci (that's the plural of abacus -- learn that word!) will be very trendy indeed and will be used by influential tastemakers around the world. Did you know that someone who uses an abacus is called an abacist? I think by this time in 2013, every would-be cool person you know will be bragging about being an abacist to the point that you'll be sick of hearing that word. People will be lugging abaci around with them the way people tote Kindles and iPhones today. Why do I say this? Just look at the evidence. The abacus has all the qualities necessary to achieve coolness. To wit:

  • It's popular in Japan. And we know that's where all the cool, exotic shit comes from, right?
  • It's ridiculously old school, and if there's one thing cool people like to do, it's using totally outmoded and impractical technology. Witness the resurgence of vinyl records and 8-bit video games. This just takes that idea to its ultimate extreme.
  • It requires no batteries or electricity and is, therefore, environmentally conscious. Compared to this, the Prius might as well be a Humvee. Once you become an avid abacist, you can be all judgy and self-righteous around people who still use laptops and smartphones.
  • The word "abacus" just sounds cool. Say it out loud a couple of times and hear for yourself. And if you know related words like "abaci" and "abacist," you'll instantly sound smarter than you actually are.
  • Design-wise, the abacus is very sleek and minimalist. Abaci come in a variety of colors and styles. There is great potential here for customization. Imagine a shiny, blinged-out abacus with a gold frame, jewels for beads, and platinum wires. Or at the opposite end of the spectrum, picture a tasteful, all-white abacus with the Apple logo on it -- the perfect accessory for your regular Sunday trip to the bookstore or coffee shop.  Whatever your personal style, there's an abacus for you.

So there you have it, folks. You can get a very nice abacus for about ten or twenty bucks today. In my opinion, you'd better snap 'em up fast before some Portland barista gets wind of this and the price skyrockets. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

John Waters' Mondo Trasho: The Soundtrack!

At last, this "gutter film" has a "gutter soundtrack."

Hello, moviegoers!

I'd like to share with you the result of a project I've been working on since the late 1990s at least. That was when I first started getting into the films of Baltimore's one-of-a-kind cult auteur John Waters. In 1969, Waters completed his first feature-length film, a surrealist comedy called Mondo Trasho. It's a dreamlike, almost arty black-and-white film about the misadventures of Bonnie (Mary Vivian Pearce), a vacant blonde "fashion fanatic" who staggers into the path of an oncoming '59 El Dorado Cadillac driven by Divine, the plus-size, cross-dressing star of most of John Waters' films from the 1960s to the 1980s.

Waters couldn't afford to have synchronized sound when he made Mondo Trasho, so he shot 90 minutes of silent footage and then assembled a soundtrack from dozens of snippets of records -- rock, R&B, classical, country, and more -- along with a few bits of dialogue recorded by his actors. The result was an incredible sonic collage that has fascinated me for years. I tried to identify all the songs he used and piece together an unofficial "soundtrack album" one song at a time. I'm still not done with it, but I have a version that is thorough enough to share with the public.

Prologue/Opening Credits
  • "Jack the Ripper" - Link Wray
Bonnie Walks to the Bus Stop and Rides the Bus
  • "Short Shorts" - The Royal Teens
  • Sound effect: dogs barking
  • "Pomp and Circumstance, March No. I" - Elgar
  • "Jambalaya (On the Bayou)" - Jo Stafford
In the Park
  • "I'm Following You" - The Duncan Sisters
  • "I Want You, I Need You, I Love You" - Elvis Presley
  • "Sitting In the Park" - Billy Stewart
  • "Il Pirata: Oh! S'lo Potessi/Col Sorroso D'Innocenza (Act II)" - Philharmonic Orchestra
  • "Strangers in the Night" - Frank Sinatra
  • "Little Bitty Pretty One" - Thurston Harris
The Shrimping
  • "Sonata for Violin and Piano (1920): III. Moderato" - Isaac Stern
  • "Hot Diggity (Dog Ziggity Boom)" - Perry Como
  • "It's Almost Like Being In Love (live)" - Judy Garland
  • "See You Later, Alligator" - Bill Haley and His Comets
  • "Ricochet (Rick-O-Shay)" - Teresa Brewer
Divine Enters in the El Dorado Cadillac
  • "Long Tall Sally (live)" - Little Richard
  • "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." -Heitor Villa-Lobos
  • "Tutti Fruitti (live)" - Little Richard
  • "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." -Heitor Villa-Lobos
  • "The Girl Can't Help It (live)" - Little Richard
  • "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." -Heitor Villa-Lobos
  • "Long Tall Sally (sax solo)" - Little Richard
  • "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." -Heitor Villa-Lobos
The Car Accident
  • "Treat 'Em Right" - Mae West
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "Treat 'Em Right" - Mae West
  • "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." -Heitor Villa-Lobos
  • "Treat 'Em Right" - Mae West
  • "Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5." -Heitor Villa-Lobos
  • "Treat 'Em Right" - Mae West
  • "Leader of the Pack" - The Shangri-Las
  • Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, First Movement
  • "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" - The Shangri-Las
  • "Why Does Everything Happen to Me? (live)" (aka "Strange Things Happen") - James Brown
On the Run with an Unconscious Girl
  • "I Want You To Be My Girl" - Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
  • "It Only Hurts For a Little While" - The Ames Brothers
  • "I Want You To Be My Girl" - Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9"- The Robins
  • "No Particular Place to Go" - Chuck Berry
  • "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive" - Jerry Lee Lewis
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings
  • "Two Faces Have I" - Lou Christie
Shoplifting Shoes from the Thrift Store
  • "Finger Poppin' (live)" - Ike and Tina Turner
  • "Riot In Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings
  • "The Girl Can't Help It (live)" - Little Richard
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings
  • "Night Train (live)" - James Brown
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin
  • "Marche Slav" - Tchaikovsky
The Laundromat and the First Miracle
  • "Under the Moon of Love" - Curtis Lee
  • "Poor Fool" - Ike and Tina Turner
  • "Rite of Spring" - Igor Stravinsky
  • "Holy Holy Holy" - traditional hymn
  • Monologue by Divine
  • Sound effect: bells ringing
  • "Holy Holy Holy" - traditional hymn
  • "The Girl Can't Help It (live) - Little Richard
  • "The Angels Listened In" - The Crests
  • "You Turn Me On" - Mae West
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin
The Cadillac is Stolen
  • "Rip It Up" - Elvis Presley
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin
  • "Riot In Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "Treat 'Em Right" - Mae West
  • "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" - The Shangri-Las
  • "Oh Lonesome Me" - Don Gibson
  • "Waddle, Waddle" - The Bracelets
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin
  • "It's Almost Like Being In Love (live)" - Judy Garland
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin
Mink Stole/Mental Hospital Dragnet
  • "Visage" - Luciano Berio
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "I Got Stung" - Elvis Presley
  • Tosca: "Presto, su! Mario!" - Renato Tebaldi
  • "I Almost Lost My Mind" - Pat Boone
  • "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" - The Shangri-Las
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "Combination of the Two" - Big Brother and The Holding Company
  • "Tell The Truth (sax solo)" - Ike and Tina Turner
  • "Riot In Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, First Movement
  • "I Got Stung" - Elvis Presley
The Mental Hospital/Mink's Topless Dance
  • "We're Off to See the Wizard" - The Wizard of Oz Cast
  • "Visage" - Luciano Berio
  • Excerpt from a Judy Garland performance: "Whatever you said, it's all right with me!"
  • "Keep Your Hands Off My Baby" - Little Eva
  • "Visage" - Luciano Berio
  • "Take a Number From One to Ten" - Lyda Roberti
  • Fats Gonder's intro to James Brown 'Live' at the Apollo
  • Take A Number From One to Ten" - Lyda Roberti
  • "What'd I Say (Parts 1 and 2)" - Ray Charles
The Second Miracle: Escape from the Snake Pit
  • "Holy Holy Holy" - traditional hymn
  • Monologue by Divine
  • Sound effect: bells ringing
  • "Holy Holy Holy" - traditional hymn
  • "The Angels Listened In" - The Crests
  • "Earth Angel" - The Penguins
  • "Flying Saucer (Parts 1 and 2)" - Buchanan and Goodman
  • "I'm Blue (The Gong Gong Song)" - The Ikettes
  • "Tutti Fruitti (live)" - Little Richard
  • "Ready Teddy (guitar solo)" - Elvis Presley
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin
  • "634-5789 (Soulsville U.S.A.)" - Wilson Pickett
  • Sound effect: phone ringing
  • Dialogue by Pat Moran and Divine
Getting to the Doctor and Robbing the Cab
  • "Slow Walk" - Sil Austin (overlaid with Divine yelling, "Taxi! Taxi!")
  • "Woo-Hoo" - The Rock-A-Teens
  • "(I Need Some) Money" - Smokey Robinson & The Miracles
  • Sound effect: dogs barking
  • "See You Later, Alligator" - Bill Haley & The Comets
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings
In the Doctor's Waiting Room
  • "Black And Tan Fantasy" - David Rose And His Orchestra
  • "You Tickle Me Baby" - The Royal Jokers
  • A woman saying, "Help! Help someone!"
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "Help! Help, someone!"
  • Sound effect: whistle
  • "Comedians Gallop" - Kabalevsky
  • "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" - The Shangri-Las
  • "Help! Help, someone!"
  • "Rumble" - Link Wray
  • "Coronation March" - Giacomo Meyerbeer
  • "Rumble" - Link Wray
  • Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, First Movement
Dr. Coat Hanger's Dreadful Experiments
  • "Trouble" - Elvis Presley
  • "Jenny, Jenny (live - stage patter)" - Little Richard
  • Long stretch of prerecorded dialogue. One of the actors may be John Barrymore. 
    WOMAN: These monsters are going to use me in one of their dreadful medical experiments! 
    MAN: Care for a girl? Ha ha. My dear fellow, I thought you knew me better than that! Ha! My extreme taste for certain pleasures causes me to sacrifice at whatever altars are available. And I often imagine that a girl is actually a boy and use her accordingly.
    SECOND MAN: Let me inspect your veins.
  • "True Fine Mama (live -stage patter)" - Little Richard
  • "Fantasie in F Minor, KV 608" - Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
  • "Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)" - Buchanan & Goodman
  • "Dr. Feelgood" - Aretha Franklin
  • "(You've Got) The Magic Touch" - The Platters
  • "Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)" - Buchanan & Goodman
  • "Remember (Walking in the Sand)" - The Shangri-Las
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings (overlaid with monologue by John Waters)
Shootout in the Waiting Room
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9" - The Robins
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels
  • Sound effect: whistle
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels
  • Excerpt from unknown R&B song: "Owwww! Sometimes the going get a little tough!"
  • "He's So Fine" - The Chiffons
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes
  • "Western Movies" - The Olympics
  • Excerpt from unknown R&B song: "Owwww!"
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes
  • "Western Movies" - The Olympics
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels 
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels 
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels 
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels 
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Blue Moon" - The Marcels 
  • Excerpt from unknown R&B song: "Owwww!" 
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Western Movies" - The Olympics 
  • "Get a Job" - The Silhouettes 
  • "Riot in Cell Block 9" - The Robins (lyrics used for the first time)
Bonnie in Peril!
  • "Along Came Jones" - The Coasters
  • "A Fool for You" - Ike and Tina Turner
  • "Along Came Jones" - The Coasters
  • "I'm Moving On" - Ray Charles
  • Beethoven's Fifth Symphony, First Movement
  • Excerpt from unknown pop record: "I almost flipped when she looked my way. I tried to think of the right thing to say."
  • "Remember (Walking in the Sand") - The Shangri-Las
  • "Bertha Lou" - Clint Miller
On the Run with Dr. Coat Hanger
  • "Come Go With Me" - The Del-Vikings
  • "Mars, Bringer of War" - Gustav Holst
  • "Don't Let the Stars Get in Your Eyes" - Perry Como
  • "Rescue Me" - Fontella Bass
  • "I Feel Good" - Shirley and Lee
  • "Lollipop" - The Chordettes
  • "I Feel Good" - Shirley and Lee
  • "A Letter From Tina" - Ike and Tina Turner
  • "Angel Baby" - Rosie and the Originals
  • "Kansas City" - Wilbert Harrison
  • "All I Could Do Was Cry" -Ike and Tina Turner
  • "A Letter From Tina" - Ike and Tina Turner
  •  "I Feel Good" - Shirley and Lee
  • "Goodbye to Love" - The Marcels
They're a Twosome Again/In the Pigsty
  • "Rumble" - Link Wray
  • "Ride of the Valkyries" - Wagner
  • "Holy Holy Holy" - traditional hymn
  • "Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)" - Buchanan & Goodman
  • "Catulli Carmina: Chorus/Actus I" - Carl Orff
  • "Maybe" - The Chantels
  • "(You've Got) The Magic Touch" - The Platters
  • "Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)" - Buchanan & Goodman
Back to Reality, Such as it Is
  • "Here I Stand" - Wade Flemons and The Newcomers
  • "Going Out of My Head" - Little Anthony and the Imperials
  • "Surfin' Bird" - The Trashmen
  • "(You've Got) The Magic Touch" - The Platters
  • "Flying Saucer (Parts 1 & 2)" - Buchanan & Goodman
  • Dialogue by Mink Stole and David Lochary
  • "Whole Lotta Shaking Going On" - Jerry Lee Lewis 

P.S. - John Waters did not purchase the rights to any of these songs, so Mondo Trasho cannot be legitimately released on DVD. The cost would be prohibitive. Mondo did have a VHS release in the 1980s, though, and bootleg copies are fairly easy to find.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

I promised myself I'd do a post someday about the band Cruella de Ville...

Cruella de Ville during their frustratingly brief 1980s career

A rare Cruella 12" single
This is me keeping a promise to myself.

I want this blog to be a force for good in the universe, and there can be no greater good than to let you readers know about an incredible Irish quartet called Cruella de Ville that existed only from 1982 to 1984 and released a grand total of eight songs, plus a handful of remakes and remixes. You can listen to their entire recorded output during a single lunch break. Wikipedia labels their music as "post-punk" and "goth rock," I guess those labels are accurate enough, but they make the band sound angry or gloomy, which it most definitely isn't... or wasn't.

I first heard their music on radio's The Dr. Demento Show back in the 1990s. In those days, I was a regular reader of a Usenet group called, where the show's playlists were regularly posted in advance. When I saw a song called "Those Two Dreadful Children" credited to Cruella de Ville, I assumed it had something to do with the 1961 Disney movie 101 Dalmatians, which features a villainess named Cruella de Vil, voiced by Betty Lou Gerson. Although that character did inspire the band's name, Cruella de Ville has no connection to Disney or the film. In fact, their music was unlike anything I'd ever heard. I was instantly hooked.

If I were trying to sell you on the music of Cruella de Ville, I'd describe it as what would happen if Wednesday and Pugsley Addams took over the band Queen. That about covers it. In fact, the band really was founded by a brother-and-sister pair, Colum and Philomena Muinzer, and did take a lot of musical cues from Queen, especially that group's guitarist, Brian May.

For a while, it looked like the band might make it. Cruella released a string of 7" and 12" singles in the UK, including a few on the Beatles' old label, EMI, but widespread commercial success was not forthcoming, and Cruella dissolved before even recording a debut album. The good news is that fans have collected and cherished those rare Cruella de Ville records for 30+ years now, and they've aged like fine wine. These songs are almost unreasonably fun. Here, take a listen to the group's best-known tune.

If you weren't blown away by "Those Two Dreadful Children," then you and I would have very little in common. That's the song that originally got me hooked on Cruella. After I heard that on The Dr. Demento Show, I knew I had to hear more... and what I found was almost too good to be true!

Here's another favorite of mine, a track called "Drunken Uncle John." This song especially resonates with me, because there actually was a "drunken Uncle John" in my own family, and his behavior was not too far off from what is described in the lyrics. Cruella even filmed a video for this one. Take a gander, won't you?

And that wasn't their only video, either! Check out this one for the insanely catchy "Gypsy Girl."

Cruella de Ville also made a few appearances on British television. Here they are performing another classic, an absurd and politically anti-correct little concoction called "Hong Kong Swing," whose lyrics seem to be a jumble of Japanese and Chinese terms strung together into tongue-twisting rhymes.

I wish I could say that there were lots more Cruella de Ville tracks to play for you, but there simply aren't. The band broke up, and the musicians went on to other, more sensible pursuits. You've already heard about half the band's entire catalog at this point, I'm afraid. But I hope you've enjoyed what you've heard. If you're the least bit curious for more of this group, I can provide some helpful links.
That's pretty much it. And now, I've fulfilled that promise to myself. Good for me.

Monday, December 3, 2012

They said it couldn't be aired: The lost Wayne Kotke segment!

It was bound to happen eventually. Wayne has crossed the line, folks.

Ain't I a stinker? Handsome, though.
I've been producing "Wayne Kotke" segments for the Mail Order Zombie podcast since September 2008, and during that time, I've used my few moments at the end of the show to experiment with all kinds of humor: morbid, irreverent, occasionally satirical, and possibly even tasteless. Surprisingly, considering this is the Internet, there's been very little negative feedback to any of this. Oh, there have been a couple of mild complaints over the years, but nothing too substantial. I think the key to all of this is that the MOZ segments are done in a lighthearted, all-in-good fun sort of spirit. The Wayne Kotke character is nothing if not upbeat. He's the eternal optimist, always sure he's onto the next great idea and totally unconcerned with the consequences of his actions. It never occurs to him that anyone could take offense at what he says. Over the years, I've been testing the boundaries of what people will accept from this character. Wayne has no real "filter," so he cheerfully admits to all sorts of bad behavior: copious drug and alcohol consumption, the sale of illicit substances (sometimes to schoolkids), insurance fraud, mail fraud, a whole host of scams and schemes, and many, many murders. I've sometimes wondered if anyone would ever take offense at one of these segments, but hardly anyone has.

Well, citizens, my luck finally ran out this week.

Garfield: No fan of Mondays
The hosts of Mail Order Zombie have deemed one of my "Wayne Kotke" segments too potentially offensive and/or controversial to air on their program. That's their prerogative, of course. It's their show, after all, not mine. I was surprised by their decision, however. The segments I do for MOZ are so intentionally outlandish that it's difficult to take them seriously. And besides, Wayne is just a fictional character. He's nothing like me at all. He only "exists" on the MOZ podcast and on this blog, though lately I've been ignoring him here and writing more personal articles. You may not agree with everything Wayne says -- I certainly don't -- but you can't really debate him because he's basically just a cartoon character. You might as well write a complaint letter to Garfield, informing him that Monday is a perfectly fine day of the week, thank you very much, and that you've never cared much for lasagna either. If I haven't made it clear before, let me say it now: Wayne is just a silly character, and the segments I do for MOZ are purely intended for entertainment, not as advocacy for any real world political or social issues.

However, the hosts of Mail Order Zombie felt that the following segment might offend members of the MOZ listening audience because it pokes fun at the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street movements. The segment is completely nonpartisan, and I tried to make it as balanced as possible, but the hosts of the podcast still felt it could cause a problem for them. I can sympathize with that. But still in all, I did spend some quality free time writing, recording, and editing the damned thing, so I didn't want to just scrap it completely. With the MOZ hosts' consent, therefore, I am now posting the segment here on this blog so that you can listen and decide for yourself whether it goes too far. Warning: Mild political satire (with brief profanity) ahead!

So... were you offended?

I honestly and sincerely hope not. This segment, like all the others I've done for the podcast, was just a comedy sketch and not an editorial. My segments for MOZ tend to be about whatever I find funny or interesting at the time. The week that I wrote this (and by now it's about a month old), I was suffering from severe post-election fatigue and wanted to write something about that which was even-handed and took both sides to task in a gently humorous way. This segment was nowhere near my favorite bit for MOZ, but I still wanted it to be heard. If you listened to it, thank you. And if you were truly upset by it... well, there's a comments section below just waiting for you. Feel free to use it as you see fit.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

I Couldn't Live Like That: The quiet outsider in pop culture

Talking Heads sing of buildings, food, and other topics

Boy, it's amazing the connections you can find in pop culture without even searching for them. You simply experience various works as they come into your life, either by choice or happenstance, and themes emerge and reveal themselves to you. Take a few steps back and -- whaddya know -- the individual tiles form a larger mosaic.

Today, I had such a revelation while listening to some early Talking Heads songs from the late 1970s. The band's lead singer and chief songwriter, David Byrne, has gone through many phases and stages as a lyricist. One hallmark of his early work is a kind of stoic, matter-of-fact plainness. Another is his interest in unromantic, workaday topics and prosaic sentiments which rarely get expressed through music. While other groups were singing about love, politics, injustice, and grand passions, Talking Heads were (quite literally) performing songs about buildings and food. I can still remember the first time I heard "Don't Worry About the Government," a track from their debut album, Talking Heads: 77. It blew my mind as a teenager because it completely expanded my definition of what a song could be or what lyrics could be.

Somehow, I'm not buying it.
Although the lyrics do have a meter, they rarely rhyme. More astonishing, though, is that the sentiments expressed in the song are so unpoetic. The singer's words consist of flat, factual descriptions of the obvious, mixed in with a few generic platitudes delivered with no enthusiasm or genuine human emotion whatsoever.

The listener is immediately confronted with questions. Is Byrne expressing his own thoughts and beliefs here or is he singing through some sort of character? If it's a character, then who exactly is this guy? Something is deeply troubling about this narrator. No real human being buys into "the system" (a vague term meaning, roughly, "a way of life dominated by commerce and government") as completely as this man seems to. Is he mentally impaired? Does he suffer from what we'd identify today as autism or Asperger's? Has he been brainwashed in some way, either by doctors (through lobotomy or drugs) or by television commercials which have short-circuited his brain? We don't know.

Furthermore, though this man refers to "friends" and "loved ones," he seems to be isolated and possibly a bit desperate for human contact. Notice how he gives us directions to his apartment, but there's no evidence that anyone is taking him up on his too-generous offer of hospitality. The song's chipper yet non-specific musical backing further muddies the situation at hand. Is it meant as an ironic counterpoint to the dark issues raised by the song or does the upbeat music somehow validate or endorse the views of the narrator? It's a puzzler, this one.

More Songs About Buildings and Food
The second Talking Heads album, 1978's More Songs About Buildings and Food, gives us an equally startling song, "The Big Country," with a narrator who exists seemingly at the opposite end of the ideological spectrum as the eerily compliant fellow from "Don't Worry About the Government." While that poor fellow wants desperately to fit in with "normal" society, the narrator of "The Big Country" dismisses it out of hand.

Once again, unlike other bands, Talking Heads are devoting themselves to the mundane. Maybe because no one else was really doing so in the punk and art rock scenes at the time. If music is supposed to reflect our culture and society, shouldn't someone be writing about the boring little stuff which actually fills up our days? To that end, "The Big Country" offers a supremely mundane scenario: a man looks out the window of an airplane and remarks on what he sees. That's it. Before we go any further, let's listen to the song:

Musically, the song is very different from "Don't Worry." Instead of being buoyant and poppy, "The Big Country" is languid and laconic, with a country-ish twang to the guitars. But as with the earlier song, the lyrics here are very plainspoken and only barely rhyme. In the first verse, our narrator simply describes what he sees out the window of the plane:
I see the shapes,
I remember from maps.
I see the shoreline.
I see the whitecaps.
A baseball diamond, nice weather down there.
I see the school and the houses where the kids are.
Places to park by the fac'tries and buildings.
Restaurants and bars for later in the evening.
Then we come to the farmlands, and the undeveloped areas.
And I have learned how these things work together.

I see the parkway that passes through them all.
So far, so neutral. (Apart from the vague, almost mechanical "nice weather down there.") It seems that he is describing either a suburban or rural part of the American landscape, since there are "undeveloped areas" near the houses, factories, baseball diamond, etc. The community is tethered to society by means of the parkway. But then, there's a transitional line leading into the chorus:
And I have learned how to look at these things and I say,
This lets us know that our man on the plane has developed a worldview and is about to deliver it to us. We know what he's seeing, and soon we'll know what he thinks about it. That's when David Byrne drops the nuclear bomb on the listener:
I wouldn't live there if you paid me.
I couldn't live like that, no siree!
I couldn't do the things the way those people do.
I couldn't live there if you paid me to.
These bitter lines should jolt the listener. The scenery he'd been describing up to that point was quite ordinary, probably like the places where most of us live, but his reaction to it is utter contempt. It should be noted that Byrne sings these lines the way he sings the rest of the song, i.e. sounding bored and mildly peeved rather than truly angry. It seems probable that this man is traveling alone and only thinking these things rather than saying them aloud. With the second verse, Byrne further damns this place and the people in it with faint praise:
I guess it's healthy, I guess the air is clean.
I guess those people have fun with their neighbors and friends.
Look at that kitchen and all of that food.
Look at them eat it. I guess it tastes real good.
That repeated phrase "I guess" negates any real positivity one might construe from these words. It's what you say when you are reluctantly agreeing to something but are not truly convinced by it. He begrudgingly notes the area's lack of air pollution -- another clue that our narrator is likely a city dweller -- and admits that the residents (whom he pointedly refers to as "those people," separating them from himself) might be having "fun," but he wants no part of it. The two lines about the kitchen and the food demonstrate that some of what the man is "seeing" is merely in his mind. He would not be able to actually see these things from the vantage point of the plane. He goes back to making flat, factual observations about food distribution and how the undeveloped areas, the businesses, and the private homes form one big food chain:
They grow it in the farmlands
And they take it to the stores
They put it in the car trunk
And they bring it back home
And I say...
Then he repeats the brutal chorus. The final verse is perhaps the most cryptically revealing and, therefore, the most interesting. So far, all we know of this strange man is that he is observing a world which is literally (and in his mind, figuratively) beneath him. But now Byrne gives us some insight into the narrator's opinion of his own station in life:
I'm tired of looking out the windows of the airplane
I'm tired of traveling, I want to be somewhere.
It's not even worth talking
About those people down there.
David Byrne, social critic?
He is apparently unsatisfied with his own transient, insubstantial life, perhaps as a businessman who travels frequently as part of his job, and he seemingly yearns for permanence and meaning. But he's just trashed the very place where he might have found these things. Is he having second thoughts about his cynical rejection of society? We'll never know because, in those last two lines of the verse, he simply gives up this line of thought with a slightly annoyed shrug. He's been pondering these people and their lives for a while, but he suddenly decides that this line of thought is worthless and simply surrenders to the thoughtless boredom of his plane ride.

There are no further lyrics to the song, apart from David Byrne repeating the phrase "goo goo ga ga ga." These are the syllables we frequently use, of course, to mimic the babbling of babies. I'm not 100% sure why Byrne sings this at the end. Is our narrator making a comment on the fact that the (in his opinion) worthless people down there keep reproducing and making more of themselves, i.e. more people for the narrator to hate? Is he dismissing the very idea of talking, implying that it all boils down to us making nonsense syllables that we pretend have meaning? Or is he just making a sarcastic comment on the low IQs of those he holds in contempt? We'll never know, but the ending feels right for the song.

Hudson & Landry
The song's intensity has been building slightly by this point, and this is where Byrne sounds his angriest. Like "Don't Worry About the Government," "The Big Country" is a song I'll never get tired of largely because I can't figure it out.

By an amazing coincidence, I just heard a track by a once semi-popular, now very obscure 1970s comedy team which ties in very well to this theme of self-imposed exile from society. Hudson and Landry scored four gold records, a Grammy nomination, and several national television appearances in the same decade which produced those Talking Heads albums.

H&L have all but vanished from our collective memories now, but there's a particular Hudson and Landry bit I want to share with you today because it ties in so well to "The Big Country." Just like that song, it makes repeated use of the phrase "I couldn't live like that." It's called "The Prospectors" and it concerns two would-be gold prospectors who have been out in the desert for decades with only each other -- and a pet snake named Floyd -- for company. The isolation from others has driven them quite crazy by this point, and their lives seem utterly miserable, but still they mock the ways of city slickers.

I'd like to leave this slightly heady article on a fun note, so give it a listen:

I guess I'm writing about all this stuff because I've never been quite comfortable in "normal" society and do tend to isolate myself at times, as much as I attempt to avoid doing so. But sometimes I do look at regular, average people and can't help thinking, "I couldn't live like that."

But I'm trying to "live like that" anyway. Wish me luck.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

My (involuntary) vow of silence, or "I Am Joe's Larynx"

The tiny demon who apparently lives in my larynx.
Did you hear the one about the nun who joins a very strict convent and is only allowed to utter two words every ten years? Well, our nun survives ten difficult years there and then reports to the Mother Superior's office to say her two precious words. "Food bad," she says before quietly returning to her cell. Ten more miserable years pass, and the nun says, "Bed hard." After ten more grueling years, the nun can take no more. She says to the Mother Superior, "I quit." And the Mother Superior replies, "Well, no wonder! You've been here thirty years, and all you've done is bitch, bitch, bitch."

I can relate to the nun in that story because I, too, have to ration my spoken words sometimes. I'm one of those people who get sore throats very frequently, on average of once a month. I've been to various doctors about it, and there's never been much they can do. My sinuses drain into my throat or something, I've been told. Don't worry. The problem is well under control. I can always feel when these flare-ups are coming, and there are steps I can take to treat the symptoms and shorten their duration. It's not fun, exactly, but I'm managing very nicely.

No talking, please. PLEASE!
This condition has been a part of my life for about 20 years now, and one thing I have learned is that the less I talk, the better. Even when I am healthy and feeling great, my voice gives out very easily. You can see how something like this could have affected my past careers as a teacher and as a customer service rep. One of the great features of my current job is that there is very little talking involved. Oh, sure, there's the usual banter and chit chat, and there are certain occasions when actual conversation is more efficient than e-mail. But there are also long stretches of each day when I don't have to say a solitary word.  These sore throats generally last three to five days. I can always tell when the flare-up is "peaking," and on such days, I try not to talk at all and communicate solely through e-mail and handwritten notes. This is not unusual for our department, since one of my coworkers is a deaf-mute and does most of her communicating this way.

The only problem is that, at heart, I am a know-it-all and smart-aleck who has to resist the urge to chime in with an opinion about any given topic. If you've ever discussed something with me online, you know that I am capable of burying you in paragraphs upon paragraphs of rhetoric. Under the right circumstances, I can be like that in person, too. I have to suppress that part of my personality on "sore throat" days. But sometimes, that's not an option. Today, for instance, was my weekly therapy session. It was the only talking I'm going to do today, but it was an hour of almost nonstop wear and tear on my vocal cords. Right now, my voice is absolutely shredded, but it was still worth it since I need my weekly opportunity to vent.

Random childhood memory: For a few months when I was in junior high, my friends and I became obsessed with a very low-budget commercial for one of those cheesy "golden oldies" compilation albums called Fun Rock. The ad seemed to be in nonstop rotation on local TV until we'd memorized it like members of a cult reciting from some sacred scripture. Almost a quarter of a century later, I can still remember the announcer's hysterical opening spiel: "Remember when rock had no message, no meaning, no nothing but PURE FUN?!?!?" One kid down the street, Andy, went so far as to get his parents to actually order the album for him. It took up, as the ad proclaimed, "three giant cassettes," and I was able to strong-arm Andy into making me copies of two of them on the absolute cheapest, worst-quality blank tapes I could find. Somewhere amid the collected debris of my life, I think I still have one of those tapes. Anyway, YouTube actually has the ad:

In retrospect, this collection of songs probably had a seismic impact on my musical tastes. Here's a song from Fun Rock which I dedicate humbly to myself on this day of self-imposed silence:

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

A day (vicariously) spent with Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer: Mathematician turned singer-songwriter turned mathematician again.

"One man deserves the credit. One man deserves the blame."
-Tom Lehrer

Tom Lehrer would scoff at the idea of being anyone's hero. This is part of the reason why he's one of mine.

A native New Yorker born way back in 1928 (one shudders to do the grim calculations here), Lehrer was a child prodigy who graduated magna cum laude from Harvard at the age of 19. Since that time, he has spent most of his career either teaching or lecturing about mathematics at some of America's finest academic institutions, including MIT and the University of California at Santa Cruz. He formally retired in 2001, but he's still listed at the Rate My Professors website with a student review as recent as 2005.

Latter-day Lehrer
What sets Tom Lehrer apart from other mathematicians, apart from his claim of inventing the Jell-O shot, is that he devoted much of his time in the 1950s and 1960s to writing and performing some of the darkest, funniest songs I've ever heard -- deceptively joyous musical theater-type ditties with droll, sardonic lyrics about such topics as sex ("I Got It From Agnes"), drugs ("The Old Dope Peddler"), violence ("The Masochism Tango"), religion ("The Vatican Rag"), death ("I Hold Your Hand in Mine") and war ("So Long, Mom") with a candor which set him far apart from both the singers and the comedians of that era. Today, comedians can joke openly about pornography, incest, cannibalism, bestiality, and necrophilia on prime time network television, but this wasn't true 60 years ago when Tom's records couldn't even be played on the radio during respectable hours.

As with much of the music that now clutters up my brain, the bizarre and sometimes brutal song stylings of Tom Lehrer first entered my life through The Dr. Demento Show. This was back in the 1990s, before the internet was any damned good, and it was difficult to come by information about Tom's life or career back then. I couldn't even find a picture of the guy! I knew instinctively, though, that he wore glasses. Somehow, that was obvious to me. His myopia was audible

Despite the apparent rudeness of his lyrics, Mr. Lehrer conducted himself with the utmost decorum onstage, using impeccable Ivy League diction, eclectic and impressive vocabulary, and carefully-curated grammar. On his records, he comes across as man far too smart to take life the least bit seriously. Lerher's musical career occurred during the Cold War when it seemed ever-more-likely that mankind would annihilate itself with increasingly-deadly weapons. This looming apocalypse is the topic of several Lehrer songs, and he treats it the way he treats all other subjects: with an air of detached amusement at the absurdity of it all.

Tom Lehrer's 1953 debut
Today, almost two decades after I first heard "Poisoning Pigeons in the Park," (the song that made me a fan) I spent some quality time listening to virtually every Tom Lehrer recording available to the public. That's not a great investment of time, honestly. There are roughly three hours of Lehrer audio in total, nearly all of it consisting of Tom singing solo and accompanying himself on piano. 

His musical output boils down to two brief studio albums (Songs by Tom Lehrer and More of Tom Lehrer), three live albums (Revisited [a.k.a. Tom Lehrer in Concert], An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer, and That Was the Week That Was), plus a handful of miscellaneous recordings. He recorded a handful of his most famous songs with a full orchestra, for instance, plus he did a few well-remembered educational songs (like "Silent E") for a PBS children's program called The Electric Company. There are a few good CD compilations out there of Lehrer's work, but buyers should know in advance that the same exact songs from the two studio albums are heard on his first two live LPs as well. And I mean, they're note-for-note the same. If you buy the boxed set with his "complete" recordings, be prepared to sit through the same songs two or even three times.

In all instances, the live versions are superior to their (crude) studio counterparts. For one thing, Tom tends to put a little more oomph into his singing and playing when he's onstage, hamming it up for the benefit of the crowd. He was supposedly uncomfortable with live performances and had trouble remembering the words of his own songs, but you'd never guess that from these recordings.

Better yet, Tom's between-song monologues are little masterpieces of deadpan, spoken-word comedy. He does long, elaborate intros to his tunes, often going off on absurd tangents which have little to nothing to do with the songs. These little digressions are the source of many of Lehrer's best one-liners and bon mots. A particular favorite, from his description of a fictitious doctor: "His educational career began interestingly enough in agricultural school where he majored in animal husbandry... until they caught him at it one day." The audience roars at that joke, and the reaction of the crowd is another reason why Tom's best records are his live ones. There's palpable tension as the audience members decide how far they're willing to let Mr. Lehrer go in his pursuit of tasteful bad taste. You can practically hear them wince, for instance, when Tom gets to this couplet from "Bright College Days":
Oh, soon we'll be out amid the cold world's strife.
Soon we'll be sliding down the razor blade of life.

I'll leave this little discussion of Tom Lehrer's brilliant career with one of the nastiest, truest, and most cynical songs ever written. It first appeared on his 1953 debut album, and when he reprised it on his first live LP, he dedicated to those in the audience who were still in love. If you are in love, I now dedicate this song to you:

HEALTH NEWS AND NOTES: I haven't done one of these updates in a while because, frankly, there's been nothing much to report. Taking meds and attending therapy sessions no longer feel like digressions from my life anymore. They're simply part of my life, as regular as a job. Speaking of which, my job remains simultaneously stressful and dull.

Make no mistake: I am fortunate to be employed at all by anyone in any capacity, so I am very grateful to my corporate paymasters. I cannot forget that the insurance I have through my job is what's financing my treatment. Homer Simpson once memorably referred to alcohol as "the cause of and solution to all of life's problems." That's kind of how I feel about my job. It makes me miserable, but I'd be lost without it. 

My anxiety and depression have tapered off quite nicely over the last month, and the severe gastrointestinal problems that were once a huge part of my life have now disappeared utterly. I'm still isolating myself from the world, and I'm always in danger of disappearing into a sinkhole of solipsism or narcissism. I can spend entire weekends pondering the subjective nature of "truth" and "reality" rather than, you know, talking to other human beings or getting fresh air and exercise. Gotta work on that.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Haven't done a new ZOMBY in a while, so here's one of those.

Strangers on a Train: My many Amtrak adventures

Hitchcock playfully reminds us that a mere letter separates "strangers" from "stranglers."

The very idea of a well-organized, efficient, and commonly-used mass transit system is, I am convinced, antithetical to the entire American way of life.

After all, this is the land of Rugged Individualism, John Wayne, and Not in My Backyard politics. We're Americans, dammit, and when we want to get from one place to another, we do so the way God intended: with each person in his or her own gas-guzzling vehicle. If we simply must gather with our fellow Americans for transportation purposes, we want to at least use a method which burns up as much fuel as possible, i.e. airplanes. While Europeans and Asians may be satisfied with their versatile and convenient railroad systems, we Americans believe that trains are best used for carrying coal, sheet metal, and hapless schmucks. That last group includes me, I'm sorry to report.

As the only one in my family living in Illinois, I am expected to travel to Indiana every time a major holiday rolls around. Since I despise driving and all but refuse to embark upon any car trip longer than 40 minutes, my only real option is to take an Amtrak train to a town somewhat near the one where my sister resides. I've been doing this several times a year for about ten years now, which gets me wondering how much of my life I've spent aboard trains. After all, my job requires me to take a commuter train to and from Chicago every morning, so at least 1-2 hours of every working day is spent on the rails.

But there's a vast difference, at least in my mind, between the Metra Union Pacific Northwest Line train which takes me to and from my job and the Amtrak Capital Limited which hauls me to Indiana a few times every year. Let me explain. Do you remember those "All Aboard America" Amtrak commercials from the 1980s?

Yeah, Amtrak is nothing like that.

While my daily commuter train runs according a strictly-timed schedule and is used mainly by quiet, well-behaved business people, thus allowing me ample opportunity to catch up on my reading, the typical Amtrak train operates according to a vague, mysterious itinerary and is used frequently by social outcasts and twitchy psychotics, thus allowing me ample opportunity to ponder the futility of existence. 

Anyone who tells you that "life is short" has never ridden on one of these passenger trains, I assure you.
Amtrak is where time goes to die a horrible death. Delays, disruptions, and malfunctions are frequent, and you will frequently find yourself spending many hours in fairly cramped quarters with some bizarre, ornery, and unpleasant folks. (If you're lucky, this applies only to your fellow passengers and not the crew members.) 

Bagge's bluntly-titled comic

Cartoonist Peter Bagge wrote a very funny and true comic about his railroad experience a few years ago, and I strongly encourage you to read it. For my part, though, I'd like to share some of my more... uh, colorful anecdotes from a decade of experience with Amtrak.

First and foremost, I have to tell you about Mitch, a burly and heavily intoxicated man in his mid-40s.  If you're trying to picture him, imagine Popeye as a washed-up alcoholic. His real name was Michael, you see, but everyone called him "Mitch." I knew that because Mitch himself told me -- without being asked -- within the first 30 seconds of sitting down next to me. He also told me of his unheralded one-man heroics in the US invasion of Granada and informed me that, if you knew anything whatsoever about boxing, you could tell that the fight choreography in Rocky II was in no way realistic.

Mitch talked of these and many other topics during my trip, all without any prompting from me whatsoever, and was convinced that his inspirational life story would make a great book -- a book he thought I should write. I politely demurred and made my way toward the exit, suitcase in hand, well before the train reached my stop. The last I saw Mitch, he was trying to pick a fistfight with some Mennonite passengers who were seated behind us. They were debating whose carpentry skills were superior. Naturally, Mitch felt he could raise a barn better than any Mennonite and was willing to "prove" this assertion with his fists if need be.

"Hello, complete stranger!"
Oh, and then there's the Pilgrim, a rather bland-looking middle-aged man notable only for the fact that he travels in a homemade "pilgrim" costume complete with a lidless construction-paper "hat." I've seen the Pilgrim on a few Amtrak journeys, both coming and going, and I can report that he wears the costume for the entire round trip. His crude, improvised get-up resembles the kind a child might wear for a school pageant, only sized for an adult's frame.

What makes the Pilgrim especially notable is that he lectures his fellow passengers about the First Thanksgiving, reading from what appear to be printouts of Wikipedia entries. He limits these performances to the train's "observation car," which serves as a combination lounge and snack bar. His audiences, chosen at random, are usually bewildered into silence by his unique "act," but occasionally some nervy teenagers will applaud when he finishes.

With passengers like Mitch and the Pilgrim, there is an element of tragedy lurking beneath the surreal-yet-entertaining exterior. But with other passengers, the tragedy is front and center, impossible to ignore or avoid. Such is the case with an elderly gentleman I encountered on Amtrak several years ago. This particular train had already been delayed by several hours before it even left Chicago due to some nebulously-described "mechanical problems," and somewhere in the middle of an Indiana cornfield, the train came to a dead stop for quite a long while. The passengers speculated over this new delay, and eventually, the story began to take shape. We should have seen it coming. One particular passenger, a haggard and wild-eyed older fellow, had been creating a tense atmosphere since we'd boarded in Chicago by wandering around the waiting area, babbling to himself, and glaring with menace at the other passengers.

Unlike airports, Amtrak stations have very few security checks for its passengers, so this obviously-deranged man was allowed to board. Once the train got underway, he stalked the aisles, mumbling and jabbering as the rest of us avoided his gaze. The crew members tried without apparent success to subdue him and convince him to return to his seat. When we looked out the window of the now-stopped train, we saw a whole assortment of emergency vehicles: police cruisers, a fire truck, and an ambulance. They were physically restraining this man and transporting him to the nearest hospital. (Judging by the terrain, there could not have been a hospital within an hour's drive of that locale.)

Later, once the train was again underway, a few of the conductors were all-too-willing to share the man's eerie history: he'd been a psychologist once and was under the mistaken, deluded impression that he was on his way to visit a newly-opened clinic on the East Coast. Amtrak managed to contact a relative, the man's brother, who said that the man had retired decades ago and that there was no such clinic. Apparently, this man had purchased a train ticket and boarded the Capital Limited without informing anyone. In case you're wondering, I got to my stop at four in the morning -- six hours late for what should have been a three-hour ride. That was one of the longest nights of my life.

"Vare iss ze food?"
Not all the bad/bizarre behavior I've seen aboard Amtrak trains (both by passengers and by crew members) is as severe as what I've just described. Most of it would best be described as "eccentric rudeness" by people who have no perspective whatsoever on themselves. And I mean none. Perhaps these people don't realize that they can be seen and heard by others. Maybe they don't care.

Take the case of a passenger I encountered on my most recent trip, just a few days ago. Clad in all black and totally bald, this 50-ish man was a blustery German tourist who curiously reminded me of Donald Pleasence as Blofeld in You Only Live Twice, except with a Teutonic accent and the temper of Yosemite Sam. It was like you took an old-school James Bond villain and put him through the indignities of waiting in line at a grungy train station and being cooped up with a bunch of common tourists. A guy like this really belongs in a secret fortress inside a volcano, with an army of jumpsuit-wearing henchmen at his disposal.

I knew he was going to be trouble even before the train left the station. Instead of taking a crew member aside and quietly asking a question, the way a normal person might do, he stood in the middle of the aisle, blocking traffic in both directions, and loudly said to a conductor (and here I make an attempt to convey his pronunciation): "My schtop iss at four in zee morning. Venn ve get dare and I am shleeping, you vill vake me, yes?" After the conductor assured him that, yes, he would be properly woken for his 4:00am stop ("That's our job!"), he returned grandly to his seat.

A while later, I made my usual journey over to the observation/cafe car to pick up an overpriced bag of Skittles and a can of room-temperature ginger ale and consume them while I stared at the burned-out factories, past-their-prime strip malls, and empty fields which constitute the typical "view" along this particular line.

Just as I was about to pay the crew member on duty, our German friend burst into the room and demanded to know, "Vare iss ze food?" When the crew member limply pointed to the choices on offer -- prepackaged snacks and a few microwaveable items in a freezer case -- the would-be Bond nemesis blew a gasket.

"All ziss is frozen! Ziss is SHIT! Vare is food?!"

The crew member tried to explain that there was also a dining car aboard the train where he could purchase some fancier entrees (which ranged from $16 to $25), but this answer did not satisfy him.

"I pay! I pay!" he demanded. "Vare iss ze food?! Not ziss shit! I pay!"

A hippie-looking dude with a baby strapped to his chest said at this point, "Hey, bro, there are kids here, man. You can't cuss like that." This, I'm afraid, provoked only a further torrent of obscenity from the German traveler (even though the man's English might have been shaky, he was well-schooled in profanity), but he eventually did abandon the cafe car in a huff.

I saw him a few minutes later being forcibly but politely ejected from the dining car as he explained his gastronomic grievances to a new set of crew members, who were trying to convince him to return to the cafe car from whence he'd just come."You go first! You go first!" he told them, as they stared at him in total confusion. Eventually, the psuedo-Blofeld realized that he was not going to get his way, but before he returned to his seat, he turned and gave the crew members an ominous-sounding order: "You vill vake me!"

That's Amtrak, people. You can't make this stuff up. All aboard!