The Basement Tapes

A month or so ago, I heard a strange version of “Nothing Was Delivered,” which I knew as a Byrds song, and was immediately transfixed by the simple boogie-woogie piano riff and the all-around lackadaisical style — not to mention the bizarre and earnest lyrics (“Nothing was delivered/And I tell this truth to you/Not out of spite nor anger/But simply because it’s true.”). When listening to the Byrd’s version I’d always assumed there was some religious angle, and never quite realized, as I did now, that it was really just a song about somebody who ripped a bunch of people off and how he had better come up with the money fast.

I did a little research and figured out that it was on “The Basement Tapes,” something I had always imagined to be a giant, many-disc compilation of bootleg Dylan stuff — I think my brother had one of the later, larger bootleg sets, and I had never realized that there was this separate double-album released in 1975.

There are a million theories about how these songs came to be recorded (and then not released for eight years while bootlegs proliferated, during which Rolling Stone published a demand that they be released). My favorite “origin story” for what is probably the most heavily-mythologized recording session in American musical history is the following: in the summer of 1967, Dylan owed Columbia Records fourteen more songs, and recorded these songs (and many more) with the Band (minus Levon Helm) on the cheap, in the basement of a house that became famous as “Big Pink,” to fulfill his contractual obligation (and while he recovered from a pretty serious motorcycle accident). Then, when he ended up signing an extension with Columbia, he no longer wanted to release these unpolished and off-the-cuff recordings, so instead he distributed them to various other artists, who recorded and released the songs. Hence the Byrds’ versions of “Nothing Was Delivered” and “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” Peter Paul & Mary’s “Too Much of Nothing,” multiple versions of “This Wheel’s On Fire,” (including one that became the theme song for “Absolutely Fabulous”!) etc.

Of course, these deliberately stripped-down and rustic tunes turned out to be some of Dylan’s (and The Band’s) best work. I am utterly blown away, and more than a little ashamed that it took me this long to catch on. Right now I can’t think of a more consistently great record, let alone a double album. The songs that first seemed like filler now, on the 30th listening or whatever I’m at, seem just as great as the more immediately-accessible ones. I was initially drawn in by the “going to seed” and general dissolution themes (on songs such as “Goin to Acapulco,” “Too Much of Nothing” or “Tears of Rage”). But I am now just as enthralled by some of the less weighty songs, such as the hilarious “Clothesline Saga” which is a shaggy-dog tale about a family hanging up some clothes to dry. I’ve always had a slight resistance to what I saw as Dylan’s santimonious tone, and these songs are completely free of it.

Without getting any deeper into a track-by-track “golly they’re great!” post (which has been done many times before), I’ll just note that the songs all have an amazing, hymn-like simplicity that stands in stark contrast to a lot of the music, good and bad, that was coming out in 1967.

I love the thought of Dylan and The Band holing up and playing cover after cover of American traditionals, until they got to the point where they were just writing their own versions of these songs. I’m now reading Greil Marcus’ book “The Old, Weird America” which is largely about this record, where he ties the songs to the America captured in Harry Smith’s Folkways anthology — the weird mythic world of misfits, con men and murderers. It makes a lot of music I’ve loved for years seem strangely brittle and two-dimensional.

Finally, there is great appeal to me in the idea (which may or may not actually be true) that it was exactly because Dylan thought he was just banging out some stuff to fulfill a contract that let him realize his full potential (and perhaps avoid the sanctimony). I can’t wait to sink my teeth into the 5-disc sets with little song fragments and covers of “People Get Ready” and Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs!

The Subtitled Hitler Video Meme

I am somewhat ashamed to use the term “meme,” which I have been resisting for years. I’ve tried to group it into the category of pointless, space-filler terms like “outside of the box” or “on a going forward basis,” but it has become increasingly clear to me that “meme” is, in fact, a concise and distinct term that captures a phenomenom that otherwise can be described only with a lot more words.

The Urban Dictionary offers these five definitions for “meme”:

1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media)

2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable

3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture
– meme pool (n.) : all memes of a culture or individual
– memetic (adj.) : relating to memes
– memetics (n.) : the study of memes

4 : in blogspeak, an idea that is spread from blog to blog

5 : an internet information generator, especially of random or contentless information

My favorite sorts of memes are those that start from some basic “text,” such as a short video, event or comment that “catches fire” in popular culture, and then build on it, creating new and increasingly bizarre derivations. So for example there is the Kanye West/Taylor Swift meme, where new words are plugged, “Mad Libs”-style, into Kanye’s infamous rant at the MTV Music Awards, or the “Yo Dog!” meme where the same thing is done to the host of ‘Pimp My Ride’s” infamous trope, “Yo dawg, I heard you like ______, so I put an __________ in your car so you can ________ while you drive!” (See the excellent website “Know Your Meme” for hilarious mini-episodes on memes, done by Dharma-initiative-like people in labcoats).

But my favorite meme of all is the “Hitler Subtitle” meme, in which people take a famously over-the-top scene from the movie Downfall, where Hitler freaks out at his generals, and add subtitles suggesting that Hitler is instead getting mad about something else altogether. The first one I remember seeing cast Hitler as Hillary Clinton, with the generals attempting to break the news to her that Obama was on an unstoppable course to securing the Democratic nomination. But it’s been done over and over again, on countless different topics ranging from problems with Windows Vista to a planned trip to Burning Man, and every time somebody sends me a new one, I laugh even harder than the last time. I have no idea why — the mystery of a successful meme is why it doesn’t fizzle out, but instead gains momentum as it evolves. In this case, there is something about the scene with its buffoonish German ranting that lends itself to literally any conceivable expression of outrage. And, of course, the more insignificant the topic, the sillier it seems in the context of Hitler and his generals. But what I don’t understand is my sense that it is funnier each time in part because of the experience of having seeing all of the other versions.

Here is the latest iteration:


(“Know Your Meme’s” explanation here.)

Overhyped "Edgy" Films

I’ve noticed a trend: every year, some movie gets a ton of acclaim as an “edgy, hip, breakthrough” movie that elevates it to “Oscar discussion” etc. — and the movie, when I see it, is completely forgettable, so much so that I am bewildered as to why it’s getting so much attention.

This happened a couple of years ago with “Little Miss Sunshine” — there was so much hype around it that I was stunned to discover how limited and boring it was. Then there was “Juno” — same story. This year, it’s “Up In the Air,” which I found not only forgettable, but really quite bad. I love George Clooney and Vera Farmiga, and I also love that scrappy sidekick from “Twilight,” so I had very high hopes (particularly after reading about how it got the most Golden Globe nominations, etc.) But from the first moments of the opening scene, I knew that I was in trouble: it looked like an insurance commercial. I’ve done a lot of traveling for work in the past couple of years, so I am very familiar with the airport routines that the movie celebrates, and yes, it does “capture” the experience of going through airport security a lot…but it captures it in the same way that an ad for Frequent Flyer miles might capture it.

But my main complaint is that not one of the characters ever did or said a single thing that any actual human being might ever do or say. I credit the actors with a pretty heroic effort, but the dialogue was beyond fake. I’ve made this complaint to various friends who claim to have loved it, and nobody can give me a satisfactory response. “Reitman’s films are hyper-real, not real” — “You just have to enjoy the pop psychology” — etc. I am actually very tolerant of crappy dialogue and implausibility in a movie that has some other purpose — so, for example, I enjoyed “The Hangover” despite the fact that it was not particularly realistic, because it was a farce, and I enjoyed “Avatar” and its cliches because it was a larger-than-life action movie — but if a movie like “Up in the Air” can’t deliver plausible characters, what is it? It’s a crappy commercial, for what I don’t know. Or, as a friend of a friend put it, “If the Pottery Barn started making movies, this could be their first release.”

It’s not that big a deal that I hated a movie that lots of people loved, but I am convinced that nobody really loved it, and instead they’re all just getting caught up in this trend. With the proliferation of media these days, I think everybody is afraid that studios are going to want to make only blockbusters, and that smaller, more introspective movies will stop being made. So periodically (typically during awards season) everybody latches onto one movie and makes it “mainstream” as if it’s a work of art. “Up in the Air” is the perfect candidate, because it has a “dark” and “timely” theme (the hero is a guy who flies around the country firing people), but it is also sentimental in various ways. My advice is pass, and make sure that your 3D glasses for “Avatar” aren’t smudged.

Spite Houses

Just in time for the holidays, I bring tidings of “spite houses,” structures built for the sole purpose of irritating the neighbors (by blocking their access to light and air, etc.).

I have to say — I can imagine something like this happening, but I’m a litle taken aback that this concept is so well-embedded in our culture that there is a commonly-recognized term for it. This wikipedia page contains many examples of “famous” spite houses, including the little bugger pictured to the right. It will also teach you about the less-common, but still spiteful “spite fences.”

The best part about a spite house? Because it isn’t built for any practical use by its owner, there is a lot of leeway when it comes to design — you can really let your imagination soar when the structure you’re building has no intended use beyond to irritate!


I attended two events last weekend that left me with the sense that my generation is overly nostalglc. First, on Friday night, I went to see the Pixies on their “Doolittle 20th Anniversary Tour.” I was an indie rock groupie in Boston in the late 80s, and this record was something of a watershed event in that world; on top of that, I had blown all of my opportunities to see the Pixies in their heyday, so I was very excited at the chance to see them play the record, even 20 years later. As I soon learned when I arrived at the third consecutive sold-out show at the Hollywood Palladium – a venue they never could have filled in 1989 even for one night – I wasn’t the only one: the club was jam packed with adoring Pixies fans in their 30s and 40s who went completely bananas when they took the stage. pixiesdoolittlecd As my friend who accompanied me pointed out, “Both the band and everybody in the audience want to pretend it’s 1989.” It was very redemptive to see them deliver a completely amazing performance of all of their old hits, and get the adoring crowd response they deserved, as they were relegated to opening for the Throwing Muses or U2 back when the material was new, despite the fact that it would be largely responsible for chart-toppers like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and many more. It was weird, though, to realize that it isn’t just the baby boomers who are aging rock fans anymore – there is now a whole new generation of aging indie scenesters to pay the $60 cover charge to a show like this to transport them back to the halcyon days of 1989.

Then, the next night, I saw “Where the Wild Things Are.” I suppose that the book is neutral as to which generation it’s about – it’s just a fantasy of childhood escapism. But I couldn’t help but see Spike Jonze’s treatment, with its indie score by Karen O of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, as aimed, once again, at the 30- and 40-somethings from Jonze’s generation who now have kids themselves. wildthingsAlthough the film did eventually succumb to the criticism that I, and doubtless many others, thought of even before we saw it – “Is this 20-sentence book really going to lead to a satisfying feature-length film?” – it was nevertheless very powerful at times, especially in the opening scenes where we see how isolated Max is in his childhood world, and also, to a somewhat lesser extent, when we see how the petty jealousies and resentments from which he is fleeing exist even in his new wild kingdom, leading him to sail away back home to his still-warm supper.

As mentioned at the outset, the cumulative experience left me with the sense that I’m in a generation – or maybe a sub-group in a generation? – that is extremely, perhaps excessively, nostalgic. But I wonder if this is just what happens to everybody when they reach a certain age, or perhaps to everybody that age who doesn’t have kids yet …

Iraq Magic Bomb-Detecting Wand

ADE 651Every police checkpoint in Iraq, I’ve just learned, has been equipped with a magic bomb detecting wand that is apparently objectively useless, but which Iraqi cops and soldiers swear by.

“Whether it’s magic or scientific, what I care about is it detects bombs,” said Maj. Gen. Jehad al-Jabiri, head of the Ministry of the Interior’s General Directorate for Combating Explosives. He went on to say, “I know more about this issue than the Americans do. In fact, I know more about bombs than anyone in the world.”

The company that sells them, for $20,000 – $60,000, claims that they can find “guns, ammunition, drugs, truffles, human bodies and even contraband ivory at distances up to a kilometer, underground, through walls, underwater or even from airplanes three miles high.”

Yes, it can find truffles too. How does it work? “Electrostatic magnetic ion attraction,” of course.

The linked article seems like an April fools joke. The reporter describes using one of the wands in a fruitless effort to try to “detect” some AK-47s, and the general telling him, “You need more training.”

Kitty, Daisy and Lewis

I am obsessed with the British teen music trio Kitty, Daisy and Lewis.  They’re three siblings, all under 20 apparently, whose parents are session musicians (also I think their mom was briefly a drummer in The Raincoats).

Here’s one of their videos:


From the first moment I heard them it seemed obvious that they were “retro,”  but I’m not very familiar with the particular brand of spirited hillbilly music at which they excel.

Take the song above, “Going Up the Country.”   I vaguely recognized it when I heard their cover, and figured that it was some bluesy standard.  But a little digging reminded me that the version I recognize is actually a Woodstock-era song with that grating, TV-commercial-like flute hook, by Canned Heat.  So even though these precocious teens probably consider themselves to be covering the blues original, for most ears it’s an overdue reinterpretation of that hippy debacle — and the line “We might even leave the USA” sounds distinctly late-60s.  

I’m not sure what to make of all this.  Would I be better off just listening to “era-appropriate” music?  Or is there something new about three British teenagers redoing these standards? I am definitely enchanted, even despite the fact that their parents are obviously exercising some degree of Svengali-like influence (they’re both in the backing band for example).

Here’s a clip from a documentary that has some further detail, including their festishistic obsession with using only analog equipment when they record. Note the slightly awkward explanation of “letting Dad into the band,” because he was always sort of hanging around anyway.


And here is the first minute of a great live performance of probably my favorite track of theirs, “Honolulu Rocka Rolla”:


Again, I have no idea where this song comes from. It appears to have been a hit for “Bella Di Waikiki,” and here is Eartha Kitt singing it.

Czech "Bad Boy" David Cerny

05cerny_190I was delighted to learn, this morning, of Czech “enfant terrible” artist David Cerny, who was profiled in the New York Times.  I guess I had seen the pink tank at some point, but this was the first I heard of his caricature of the Czech president encased in a giant, fiberglass anus, not to mention his installation featuring “two bronze sculptures of naked, urinating men, which proceed to swivel their hips and move their protruding penises to trace his four-letter words into a pond shaped like a map of the Czech Republic.”

The article goes on to explain how Cerny became a “folk hero” when he staged an elaborate prank when the Czech Republic had the rotating six-month presidency of the EU last year.  Apparently some (no doubt officious) Czech dignitaries hired him to oversee a project where artists from each country in the Union would create a work that would “proudly display the unique traits of [their] country.”  Instead, Cerny did all of them himself, savagely lampooning each country (“Bulgaria as a Turkish toilet, Catholic Poland as a group of priests raising a gay flag and Germany as a network of motorways eerily resembling a swastika”), and then made up fictional artists and fake biographies for each one, complete with absurd narratives about the pieces.

That has got to be one of the best abuses of cultural cachet I’ve ever heard of.  The article quotes a Czech museum director who says that his art is “destined for the amusement park,” but then reveals that Cerny also placed that guy in the fiberglass anus, feeding slop to the Czech President to the tune of “We Are the Champions.”  If ever anybody earned his reputation as an artistic “bad boy,” it would have to be him, right?  How do you beat naked sculptures peeing swear words onto a map of your home country, or using your status to embark on personal vendettas against museum directors in the form of elaborate installations making fun of them?

The article, which is a little bit fawning (it says he looks like Mick Jagger, and also breathlessly reports how he “considered” getting fake boobs and walking around Prague with them.  Maybe it’s just me, but he’d have to go ahead and actually do that before I’d call it newsworthy), quotes him talking about the difference between the U.S., where Americans are “taught to be proud and as visible as possible,” and the Czech Republic, where “we are taught to be silent and invisible.”  I am fascinated with the idea that this sort of behavior made him a “folk hero,” as it is all too easy to imagine the opposite reaction were some American artist to make a statue of somebody peeing on the American flag or what have you.  Perhaps Dan or one of our Czech readers can further elucidate this cultural distinction.  (I’m also hoping that this post will inspire Dan to tell us about some other famous Czech pranks that I learned a little about when I visited last year.)

EDIT: Dan reminds me that Cerny also made the creepy babies that adorn the Zizkov TelevisionTower, as described in a recent post.  They seemed sort of crazy when I first saw them, but they are clearly on the tamer end of the Cerny spectrum.

When Natural Disasters Collide: California Edition


Dedicated Mock Duck readers may recall Dan’s suggestion of a Fox-type show called When Natural Disasters Collide.  Putting aside its merits as a TV show concept, the idea is getting a lot of currency this week as a proposed “solution” to the wildfires that are raging out of control throughout California.  Lo and behold, noted some astute disaster observers, there is a giant hurricane bearing down on Baja California, just to the south of the area beset by wildfires.  Maybe it will shift course, and save the day!  Apparently there is even some vague plausibility to this idea, although it didn’t sound like it when my mother (who would prefer that I move as far away as possible from anywhere where there might be earthquakes or fires) suggested it, as if we could just radio the hurricane and ask it to switch course.

I’m not conversant enough in old monster movies to think of the right analogy, but I do recall this as a fairly common trope, where one wild and dangerous force of nature is held at bay by a second wild and dangerous force of nature.  Based on my experiences as a resident of the Golden State, however, even if the hurricane did hit us, it would probably team up with the fires to cause mass devastation via landslides.

Jewish Vengeance

Eli Roth BasterdI loved Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds — I think it was the first movie I’ve seen since Pulp Fiction where I immediately wanted to go see it again.  Not surprisingly, it is proving somewhat controversial — one friend reported that he and his mother walked out when they “realized that we were in for two-something hours of Hogan’s Heroes II,” and a number of people have noted that there is something a little uncomfortable about watching a blatantly cartoonish and unrealistic story of rampaging American soldiers capturing, torturing and murdering prisoners of war, even if they’re Nazis.  During Hitler’s big scene, I couldn’t help but think of all the frivolous Youtube homages that we’d soon be seeing based on it.

I think that one way of viewing the movie is as a thought experiment, “Under what circumstances would you approve of such behavior?”  I am pretty absolutist in my views about following the Geneva Convention etc., but it was difficult not to get caught up in the Basterds’ mission (and tactics).  And, without “giving away” the end, I will say that whereas for most of the movie I was thinking, “OK, this is silly but enjoyable,” by the end, when the Jewish Vengeance is delivered in an extreme and over-the-top manner that only Tarantino could provide (complete with an awesome meta-narrative about film-watching itself), I had a very unexpected reaction — I became totally exhilerated and ecstatic, nearly bursting into tears of joy.  It was an explosion of vengeful emotion that I had no idea I was capable of, and I’ve been hearing similar reports from other Jews who saw the movie.

This unexpected reaction has made me think about how little a role vengeance plays in the standard narrative of the Holocaust.  I’ve since been hearing stories about prisoners who were released from the death camps and then went around the countryside, marauding and pillaging, with the attitude that any nearby villagers were complicit in the crimes; I also heard a story, allegedly reported by the son of an American who was one of the first to arrive at Auschwitz, about how the prisoners barred the gates, and didn’t let the soldiers in until the prisoners had systematically murdered every single Nazi in the camp.  I have no idea if any of these vengeance narratives are true (and I’d like to find out), but if so, they are definitely not part of the well-established Holocaust victim narrative, and, like this movie, they raise some interesting questions about the limits of turning the other cheek.