Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Is being transgressive really enough?

Okay okay, you know me, you know I generally laugh at notions of "good taste," and in any case, we're all aware that half the point of The Onion is that it has absolutely no compunctions about going ANYWHERE for a joke, and that the very willingness to do that is frequently the funniest thing. Nonetheless: Jesus CHRIST, dude. There's a difference between being CLEVERLY offensive, and being gleefully offensive in the manner of an eight-year-old who just learned the word "fuck." This isn't clever. I could have written it. As could you have. I wouldn't mind it so much if there was some underlying POINT to it--anything at all--but instead it's more like the foul-mouthed third-grader. Yes, okay, we get it. Now go sit in the corner.

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Another movie to not watch for

The preview for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe that I saw before Star Wars looked really damn stupid, I have to say. Attention, filmmakers: THERE ARE NO SWEEPING, PANORAMIC BATTLE SCENES IN TLTW&TW! No opposing armies charging across enormous grasslands! Not there! I know that since LotR EVERY FANTASY MOVIE EVER feels the need to have them, but come on: you are REALLY REACHING here. Jeezus. I feel certain that CS Lewis would be (at the very least) highly bemused by the whole affair. An' another thing! One of the most striking things in the book is when Lucy first stumbles into Narnia: she's hiding in the wardrobe, going further and further back, when it starts getting cold and the clothes hanging up start being replaced with trees. Whereas in the preview, she opens the wardrobe door, and whoa! An enormous blinding light! Way to kill the atmosphere, guys. You'd think they would at least go with the more subtle option when it was obviously so much cooler than the alternative. Sheesh.

Also, Aslan looks really fake. Come on.

Enough is ENOUGH

You know, one of the reasons I like Steeleye Span so much is that they really did their research: they went out and found really obscure old English folk songs that I had never heard before and revitalized them. Hurrah for that. Unfortunately...it seems to me that bands who specialize in what is nebulously referred to as "Celtic" music rarely can be bothered to do the same. Or at least, there are some songs that every Celtic band EVER feels it must cover So we get the same dozen or so damn songs played over and over and bloody OVER with minimal variation. Assez! Here is a list off the top of my head:

Whiskey in the Jar
Black Velvet Band
The Wild Rover
The Irish Rover
I Tell Me Ma
A Drunken Sailor
Tim Finnegan's Wake
Star of the County Down
The Leaving of Liverpool

Friday, May 27, 2005

Obligatory Star Wars III post

This post contains spoilers, but fercrissake, it's Star Wars. Even if you haven't seen it, you more or less know what happens, and in any case, who could possibly CARE? To reiterate, it's Star Wars.

Yeah, okay. Much as it pains me to admit it, Revenge of the Sith wasn't that bad. For the FIRST half it was certainly as horrendous as you'd expect (the dialogue between Anakin and Padme was if anything even more risible than in the last one), but then, against all reason, I started to get drawn into it, when Anakin aligns himself firmly with Palpatine and the anti-Jedi pogrom begins. And there's no point in trying to nitpick: the duel on the lava planet was just damn cool.

I have to admit that Hayden Christensen was good; the actual acting may be merely passable, but towards the end, he's mostly just required to glower ferociously, which he does quite well. And Ewen MacGregor, as ever, was the highlight.

If it had finished on a strong note, I would be forced to concede that the film overall was genuinely, really GOOD, but fortunately(?), that didn't happen. After the climactic battles were over, Lucas demonstrated an unfortunate compulsion to set absolutely EVERYTHING up for the original movies, taking the wind out of whole thing's sails. He doesn't do it well, either; you would hope that seeing Anakin in the Vader suit for the first time would be super-dramatic, but it turns out to be a distinct disappointment. Seeing Dark Samurai Man going "NOOOOOOOO!!!" after being told his wife is dead just looked damn silly. And can I further note that it was obvious in Return of the Jedi that unmasked Vader was so deformed-looking *because* he'd been wearing the suit for so long, not the other way round? Also, if they HAD to have "he was burned" as their explanation, couldn't they at least have had him actually get submerged in the lava instead of just sort of spontaneously combusting due to the heat? That would have been a lot more effectively horrific. Yes, realistically, that would be instantly fatal, but the keyword here is "realistically." As I may have already mentioned, this is Star Wars we're talking about here. Final complaint: what the hell was the deal with Yoda's "oh, by the way, I'll show you how to talk to Dead Jedi Man From Episode I?" That was bizarre.

Still and all, it's a minor miracle that it even had ELEMENTS of goodness. Hurrah.

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

I think you'll agree that this is pretty awesome.

So this guy, Zak Smith, drew an illustration for each page of Gravity's Rainbow (corresponding to the pagination of the Penguin Twentieth-Century Classics edition). The mind boggles, especially considering that they're really good illustrations. I feel like they really get across the spirit of the novel. It seems kind of futile to single out individual examples, especially given that I haven't even looked at them all yet, but here is a striking picture of Blicero.

I have to say, looking at them fills me with a wicked desire to reread GR. It seems indisputable that in a single reading I have unearthed but a tiny fraction of its rewards. Then again, I haven't read V even once. Or Mason & Dixon. Decisions, decisions...

Monday, May 23, 2005

Filibuster "compromise"

Well, you know, I'm no bigger a fan of "compromising" with evil than you are. But let's face it: out-and-out defeat in this case would have been so utterly unspeakably fucking horrifying that I can't help but feel a little relieved. And it seems that the ol' theocratic base is frothing at the mouth over this, which is always a plus.

Past his prime

You know, Doonesbury is still amusing on occasion, and it's still better than the vast majority of what you find on the comics page (which may be the very definition of "damning with faint praise," but still...), but gawd. Sometimes Trudeau just makes me cringe--never more so than when he goes into his Nestor/Abe Simpson mode and starts going off on those durn kids today, as he does here, and in every annual commencement strip for the past quite-some-time. Does he forget that his entire cast of characters once consisted of slacker college students? That at one point the administration was the butt of the jokes? Deeply embarrassing, is what it is.

And speaking of Family Guy, I can't fucking BELIEVE they preëmpted it tonight to show fucking Star Wars. PRIORITIES, people.

[insert "idiot savant" joke here]

Yes, it's Marilyn vos Savant, whose column in Parade Magazine demonstrates on a weekly basis that unusual facility with word puzzles does not actually correlate to being particularly bright. Today, we see the following exchange:

I don't become friends with anyone who uses vulgar language in everyday conversation. I have enough friends, but I've rejected some interesting people because of their use of obscenities. Do you think I'm being reasonable?
-Nick, Baltimore, Maryland

Yes. When I read your letter, I thought about my own friends. Although I have never consciously decided against anyone for this reason, I notice that none of my friends uses bad language! I guess I've never found an interesting person with a foul mouth. So I don't think you're missing much if anything.

Okay. Firstly, Marilyn, I hate to break it to you, but the people you hover around at your mensa meeting buffets are not strictly speaking "friends." And secondly, on behalf of Émile Zola, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Charles Bukowski, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, and any number of other soporifically boring people with "foul mouths," let me just extend to you and to "Nick, Baltimore, Maryland" a hearty invitation to go fuck yourselves.

Saturday, May 21, 2005

Hating America is the only morally defensible position to take.

At least, that's what it seems like more and more these days. Jesus CHRIST. If things like this met with immediate and overwhelming condemnation on the part of the American people, it would be one thing. But that obviously is not happening, now is it? Otherwise, we would not have fucking reelected bush, and if somehow we HAD, we'd be talking about impeachment right now. Be sure to check out the comments in that link to see a lone poster bravely defending American psychopathy. Hey, you "support our troops" fucks: I preëmptively supported the troops--I supported not sending them off to die and become monsters (and who's to say which is worse?) for no goddamn reason. I know it's a meaningless gesture compared to the pious ribbons you valiantly slap on the backs of your SUVs, but at least it's something. But now that they HAVE become monsters* I must politely decline to offer them my continued support. This makes me ill.

*no, obviously, not ALL of them. Is this footnote really necessary?


If you go out walking much in the countryside here in central PA, you're bound to encounter your share of snakes. Not all the time, but they're certainly there. The most common ones to see are your average black ratsnakes. Fairly large, not all that thrilling, but still nice. Once I got a little too close to one and was bitten, but it just stung a little. They aren't poisonous, of course. You also see garter snakes, though not as often. They seem to be more active; you rarely see them just sitting there sunning themselves, as you do the ratsnakes--they're almost always in motion. Aesthetically pleasing, but elusive. On occasion, I've also seen a few watersnakes, swimming along in the Susquehanna--not sure of their specific nomenclature, however.

That leaves the timber rattlesnakes: the only poisonous snakes you have any real chance of encountering. Theoretically, there are also copperheads about, but they're very reclusive beasts; neither I nor anyone I know has ever actually seen one in the wild. But as for the rattlesnakes, which usually aren't that common either: either they're a lot more prevalent this year, or I've just had an unusual stroke of luck--so far, I've seen three of them, two of which were in a nature preserve, Rider Park, where I go frequently but had never seen them before. In the first instance, I was walking with my brother, la la la, I saw what at first glance appeared to be a normal ol' ratsnake, until WHOA, it started rattling like crazy. It was on one side of the trail; we gingerly edged past it on the other side. These aren't diamondbacks; the timber rattler's bite isn't fatal to a healthy adult, but I still don't recommend it, as a habit. It turned to face us as we moved, but that was all. It did not stop rattling--once you get these things going, they don't like to stop. The second sighting, I was out on a longish hike (nine miles) with my father and brother. There's a vista where rattlesnakes are frequently seen sunning themselves, although not generally on days as cool as this one was. But there it was! And it wasn't in a comatose state, either--it observed us with that inscrutably snakey gaze as we went by. Then the next day, in Rider again, I was keeping a fast pace, trying to get a decent heart rate going, and I would have cruised right on past it without seeing it if it hadn't sounded the alarm. Geez, dude. Chill out a bit, eh?

There's a pretty sharp divide in the way I anthropomorphize poisonous versus non-poisonous snakes. The former are benign, or even friendly--even big, potentially dangerous ones like anacondas and pythons. Whereas the latter--though cool--are pure EE-vil. This is especially true of rattlesnakes. There's something about that rattle, along with their scary milkwhite eyes, that is deeply unnerving in a visceral, prehistoric way. One might say the same for cobras, what with the hoods and all, but with them there's more of a sense of mesmerizing, sophisticated evil--you picture them bobbing around as snakecharmers play exotic tunes to them. Rattlesnakes seem more basic and brutal. Obviously, there's no logic to any of this. Timber rattlesnakes are approximately the least dangerous poisonous snakes around; they're very shy, and they certainly won't attack without serious provocation. But the impression persists nonetheless.

It would be very easy to tie this into a political comment, but I think it's safe to assume that you, the discerning reader, have already made the connection, so I will merely beg your forgiveness for subjecting you to this long, rambling discourse. But my basic point is this: snakes are cool. End of story.

Friday, May 20, 2005

Are we sure this isn't a Bush quote?

"Fortunately, I’m pretty sure that if subordinate troops get killed off, that’s no problem."
-My brother, commenting on a difficult battle in Growlanser III

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Vital questions

Like all people of sound mind, I am quite excited by this. And if my some chance you've never read Calvin and Hobbes, or only did so on a desultory basis, jesus CHRIST I'm jealous of you. What are you waiting for? Go ahead and preorder it already. You can get a big discount at amazon.

However, questions linger. Questions like: will this collection include the exclusive stories that Watterson wrote for the four books of previously-anthologized comics (the Esential, Authoritative, and Indispensable Calvin and Hobbes, and The Lazy Sunday Book?). Will it include the little strip-length splash panels that were added to the regular collections here and there? The color cover art for these books? The miscellaneous picture placed at the beginnings and ends? These things are important. To me. The point is, large portions of my childhood were shaped by Calvin and Hobbes, and if this is meant to be the absolute LAST WORD on the subject, I want it to be absolutely *perfect.* Watterson was never one to do things halfway; let's hope that that is apparent here.

More addlepated letters page theology!

...and how.

Dr. Farouk Georgy [bomb-thrower who frequently and futilely writes left-wing letters to the editor] gives a solid definition of liberal. Being known as a liberal used to be a good thing.

However, the liberals of today have changed the definition as the Lord said would happen.

"The vile person shall be no more called liberal, nor the churl said to be bountiful. For the vile person will speak villany, and his heart will work iniquity, to practise hypocrisy, and to utter error against the Lord, to make empty the soul of the hungry, and he will cause the drink of the thirsty to fail. The instruments also of the churl are evil: he deviseth wicked devices to destroy the poor with lying words, even when the needy speaketh right. But the liberal deviseth liberal things; and by liberal things shall he stand." (Isaiah 32:5-8 KJV)

As you can see, it is today that the vile person is called liberal. However, at the time of Christ's return, the vile person will no longer be called liberal and liberal will be applied to the people it was originally intended for. The ones now known as conservatives.

Yes indeed. Of course, the King James Version is the ONLY one that uses the word "liberal" here. But hey--if there's a good reason why the language of a seventeenth-century translation of a thousands-of-years-old text shouldn't directly correspond with twenty-first-century political terminology, I'd like to hear it!

Wednesday, May 18, 2005


It would be stupid and obnoxious of me to claim some sort of high-and-mighty disdain for those lowly videogames; I still play a select few of them when the mood takes me. But crikey, man...the EXCITING DEVELOPMENTS at this year's E3 are producing something in me that seems to go beyond mere apathy. New consoles from Nintendo, Sony, and Microsoft. Gosh. Not only do these revelations fail to set my world on fire, but I'm having a great deal of trouble getting into the mindset of someone who would find them exciting. Incrementally flashier graphics coupled with, by all appearances, the exact same vacantly pretty gameplay that bored me so on the PS2. Come on, people, what do you think's gonna happen? That if only your games can reach that final, crowning polygon count, you'll have an epiphany and suddenly understand the secret of the universe? It's the same old shit as always; how can you possibly find it more than very mildly mildly interesting? If you visit gaming site 1Up.com right now, you will see that, in the section linking to their forums, there is a splashquote proclaiming that "PS3 and Revolution will blow Xbox 360 away!" This is evidently meant to be provocative; to spur you to indignantly click on the link and start shouting at strangers. But how can you possibly summon the passion to...okay, assuming I haven't already, I'm quite obviously going to fall into that "stupid and obnoxious" thing very shortly if I don't stop now. So let me close on a positive and thus possibly hypocritical note: New Super Mario Bros looks to die for. And, though I'm not generally much for action films, this trailer for Advent Children looks really goddamn cool.

And that...is all.

Fun with Creationism

Honestly, scanning the letters section in today's Williamsport Sun-Gazette, it ain't hard to see why we voted against the environment. Here's a fun letter for all to enjoy:

The Holy Bible tells us that all we need to do is look around to see the power of God in nature; it is not necessary to be a scientist to understand that the evolutionists are out of touch with reality: "For since the creation of the world, His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and God-head, so that they are without excuse" (Romans 1:20, NKJV)

The evolutionists refuse to recognize a scientific fact when the good Lord shows it to them. Anybody who has lived in a flood area knows only too well about the layers of mud that can be left behind by receding flood waters. By means of the worldwide flood of Noah's day, God laid down massive layers of mud which were pressed into rock strata with numerous fossils of suddenly buried and preserved plants and animals embedded in them. The fossil record, as it is known, is written in stone, just like the Ten Commandments, and God is the author of both of those documents.

The author goes on to parrot the old "no transitional fossils" canard. I'll spare you. But while in a sense the letter is funny, in another sense the anti-intellectualism just makes me want to fucking SCREAM: "It is not necessary to be a scientist to understand that evolutionists are out of touch with reality." Yeah, don't bother actually LEARNING anything; just close your eyes and pray. God hates independent thought. Damn. I'm not anti-religion; I'm really not. But, faced with things like this as the mainstream of American Christian thought, it's easy to see why a lot of scientists just dismiss the whole notion out of hand. You cannot engage in rational argument with people like this.

So...everyone vote?

Anyone can vote in a Presidential election, but you get to feel REALLY special if you go to the trouble of voting in municipal primaries, which took place yesterday. And the sad fact is, these primaries went a LOT better than said Presidential race did. I may not have a President or Senators or Representative or Mayor who represent me...but by god, the school board members I voted for won! And the strategy that school board candidates use is to run in both parties, so as to effectively shut out their opponents in the November election--so they've really won already. Seems sort of unethical, but hey, it means that the anti-tax, slash-school-funding crowd is out of contention, so I can't really complain. Also, the city council members I voted for won; hurrah.

The best news, however, is that a state ballot initiative to borrow federal funds for environmental protection and land preservation went through. Of course, us cavemen in Lycoming County voted against it, but fuck us. A small reason to be cheerful.

Monday, May 16, 2005

Call your goddamn senator

You know, the "nuclear option" thing? Eliminating filibusters? That's gonna basically destroy the shit out of America if it gets through? Well, it's going down this week. So call them. I got through to Specter's office on the third try. As you can imagine, the woman I talked to was duly impressed with my righteous indignation. Okay, I'll admit: I didn't bother with Santorum. I mean, come on. Senator Man-on-Dog? Like THAT'S gonna make an impact. Nonetheless, I urge you to call anyone who allegedly represents you.

Sunday, May 15, 2005

Random bizarreness

Mallard Fillmore really outdoes itself this week with a totally inexplicable series of strips mocking the USDA's redesigned food pyramid. There's little or no indication of what Tinsley's particular problem might be with the redesign, or why he thinks it's a vital enough issue to devote an ENTIRE WEEK--we're just treated to an endless (it certainly FEELS endless) barage of head-scratching non-jokes concerning the alleged...badness...of the new pyramid. Or something. It's very difficult to determine. Has Tinsley finally lost whatever vestigal cognitive function he may have possessed?

Friday, May 13, 2005

Not Steeleye Span-related

Last night, I--and my family--went to a memorial for my grandmother, Elizabeth. I actually met my cousins, George and Betty, for the first time ever. I was a bit trepidacious about this at first--there was no love lost between Elizabeth and her sister, their mother, my great-aunt Ella (whom I never met), and I thought this hostility might have sort of trickled down. But I was wrong; they were very pleasant people. I was especially impressed by George: very distinguished-looking, and admirable, too--given all the money in that side of the family, he wouldn't have needed to work a day in his life, but instead he's the director of a grant-making foundation devoted to environmental education, which is especially cool given how right-wing most of the people on that side are. They--George and Betty--seemed to have few illusions about the overall fucked-upedness of this family. "Mother always had to have someone to be angry at," George recalled. I think Elizabeth's particular angers were generally more long-term (her family, her husband's family, organized religions), but there were definite similarities. It's a real shame that their other sister, Alice, died relatively young, of cancer, in the early sixties. By all accounts, she was an extraordinarily sweet, good person (and, as photographs attest, a stunningly beautiful one); perhaps she would have served as a counterbalance to all the hostility floating around amongst her sisters. Or perhaps that's asking the impossible. Still, I'd have liked to have known her.

This family being sort of nominally Quaker, we went out to the meeting house for the service, which consisted of quiet contemplation. I had not seen the meeting house in many a year, and I was struck by its beauty. Out in a rural area, it's surrounded by a low stone wall, the yard filled with long, unmown grass and trees, with a few stone benches scattered here and there. In the back there's a small cemetary that dates back--apparently--to the early nineteenth-century. There's no ostentation there; the stones are all small and simple. Some of them are so old that, if they ever had inscriptions; they're long-gone to the point where it doesn't look as if anything was ever written thereon. The ephemerality of glory. "Glory" being a very relative term here, of course.

During the hour-long service, anyone moved by the spirit is free to offer any words that come to them. Many people, it seems, were really moved by Elizabeth; several of them were on the verge of tears. She was certainly a complex and contradictory person in many ways. I felt as if I should say something, but as I thought back, I realized that I didn't really HAVE any very strong memories involving her. The clearest ones are from recently, when she was just out of it, physically and mentally. I have inchoate memories of her and her husband's visits to Williamsport, which they would make ever year from the mid-eighties to early nineties, but nothing that really stands out. I know that at the time I thought they were pretty cool people, but there's no particular moment that impressed itself upon my memory. Life is strange and alarming. Nonetheless, I found it to be a moving service.

Empty your mind of all thoughts.
Let your heart be at peace.
Watch the turmoil of beings,
but contemplate their return.

Each separate being in the universe
returns to the common source.
Returning to the source is serenity.

If you don't realize the source,
you stumble in confusion and sorrow.
When you realize where you come from,
you naturally become tolerant,
disinterested, amused,
kindhearted as a grandmother,
dignified as a king.
Immersed in the wonder of the Tao,
you can deal with whatever life brings you,
and when death comes, you are ready.

Thursday, May 12, 2005

Steeleye Span: "King Henry"

"King Henry" could in some ways be considered the definitive Span song: the story of chivalry rewarded is very redolent of English legend and folklore, from Sir Gawain and the Green Knight to the Wife of Bath's Tale in Chaucer. And the instrumentation and particularly British intonations of the singing only serve to deepen the impression of archaicism--this is the band in a nutshell. It's the song that my father played for me when I was curious about the band and wanted to hear what they were all about. Obviously, it stuck.

Picking apart the song in a literal manner isn't really fair, since it's essentially an allegory, but will I let that stop me? Not bloody likely! Because when you think about it, you can't help but notice some significant weirdness.

Obviously, we're meant to think that Henry accedes to the fiend's demands out of chivalry rather than sheer terror, which is what most people would be operating on the basis of. Fair enough: "a store of gold, an open heart, and full of charity." I have to say, though: it's one thing to let her eat his various animals. I mean, you can tell yourself, okay: feeding strangers at one's door is the most basic form of hospitality there is. It's quite another thing to...well, have sex with her. You might think that it's a stretch to claim that that's what happened, but that is only because the mental images it conjures up are so alarming. I don't see how else we can interpret

“I've met with many a gentle knight
That gave me such a fill,
But never before with a courteous knight
That gave me all my will.”

I think it's meant to represent sort of the ultimate incarnation of chivalric sentiment. Which is okay on a purely abstract level, but not so much when we try to think about it literally. Our first issue here is that it's very difficult to imagine that ol' Henry would be, um, capable of maintaining a state of arousal, under the circumstances. But beyond that, have we forgotten that she's a giant, whose head hit the roof tree of the house and whose middle you could not span? I really, really have my doubts that this would even theoretically be physiologically feasible. And...I would speculate further along these lines, but the fact is, this is a family blog, and this entry is becoming a lot dirtier than I had anticipated.

So sure, fine, whatever. So he sleeps with her, and she becomes the fairest lady that ever was seen. Huzzah! But...I don't know about this. First, I can't help but think that there's going to be some lingering resentment here over his having had to slaughter his animals in order to achieve this result. "I'm not kissing the lips that devoured my beloved Fido!" The linked-to page includes additional verses by some random guy in which the animals are revived in the end, which would make the whole situation considerably more palatable, but those are not in the actual song, so we shall not consider them. In any case, I know I would have a lot of trouble accepting this situation.

And beyond that, come on: Henry is a king. His new betrothed is some random she-demon who barged into his hall and demanded that he kill his greyhounds. I don't CARE if she becomes the fairest lady that ever was seen. I can't help but think that htese two crazy kids are not going to have a lot to talk about. Honestly, what do you say?

"So...I, um, understand you're...a fiend that comes from hell."

"Yes. Yes, I am."


"From hell, yes. That's where I come from."

"That's really interesting."

It'll never last. The song, however, will. It's a classic, one of Span's defining moments, so get it today.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Steeleye Span: "The Royal Forester"

As previously mentioned, there's a long tradition of folk songs where men deflower young maidens and then run. The Royal Forester falls into that category, but what makes it a cut above the norm is that, intead of just passively bemoaning her fate, she refuses to take it lying down. Um. So to speak. Instead, she chases him and CATCHES him. I love:

"She's belted up her petticoat
And followed with all her force."

Yeah! And also:

“The water, it's too deep, my love,
I'm afraid you cannot wade.”
But afore he'd ridden his horse well in
She was on the other side.

Bloody well right! It's just cool because of how it bucks the trend--there isn't much of a feminist tradition here. Can't say as I understand what's meant by “Erwilian, that's a Latin word, but Willy is your name,” though. Wuh?

As in all songs of this genre, the moral, if any, is inscrutable. Although our heroine does achieve what would at the time have been considered "satisfaction," it hardly seems satisfactory--that someone as high-powered as she is should have to marry this obvious loser. It's difficult to imagine that this is going to be a particularly happy union. And the fact that the song ENDS with "She's the Earl of Airlie's daughter, and he's the blacksmith's son" seems like it ought to be in some way significant. Is the idea supposed to be that she got a raw deal, being nobility but ending up married to a commoner? Or--after the manner of ancient Chinese miscellanies--is it just a matter of the song saying "this is what happened" without passing any judgment one way or the other? Am I projecting too much?

Regardless, she is one of the band's most memorable characters. The song itself wouldn't be among my top ten Span tunes, but it does have a kind of fun, rollicking ambiance to it. By all means, check it out.

Monday, May 09, 2005

Steeleye Span: "Cam Ye O'er Frae France"

Don't believe the hype: in spite of what SOME people would have you believe (I'm looking meaningfully at allmusic.com here), Span's fifth album, Parcel of Rogues, is not overall one of their stronger efforts--certainly the least of their oringal seventies albums. There are some undeniably some good tunes there, but there's also a disproportionate amount of stuff that's just...kind of boring. The highlight is undoubtedly Cam Ye O'er Frae France. It's a really interesting piece of music. Per the link, the song is meant to mock King George I in a rather risque manner, so you'd expect it to sound kind of light or silly...but actually, when you listen to it, you find that that's not at all the case: in fact, it's extraordinarily eerie and mysterious-sounding. Of course, this is aided by the fact that the lyrics aren't at all easy to understand: as you can see, there's a lot of archaic vocabulary, but just reading the lyrics is misleading, since Maddy Prior affects a vaguely Scots English-sounding accent, so even common words are often hard to understand. And when you do understand a phrase here and there, it tends to reinforce the impression of drama ("There they'll learn to dance: Madam, are ye ready?") In any case, even reading the lyrics and looking at the definitions, I still don't totally know what's being said. You probably had to be there. But in large part the impression is created music itself, I should say. I have a great deal of trouble describing music, but listen to it yourself and you will see.

I had to take a document design class this semester. It was not what one would call a good experience; not only do I have little affinity for visual design, but the instructor wasn't really so much on the competent side. But the point is this: she had these concepts she came up with for her doctoral thesis regarding documents, and how visual and verbal elements interact with one another and goddamn, I can't believe I was able to write a phrase like that. "Contradictory interplay" is--rather obviously--what you get when the images and text contradict one another, and I feel like applying that to this song. It's so striking that I must assume it was intentional--the marriage of low subject matter to high music. And so I must congratulate Hart, Prior, and company--it has to take real vision to see the dramatic potential in an eighteenth-century equivalent of the National Enquirer.

Friday, May 06, 2005

Steeleye Span: "Little Sir Hugh"

Ah, “Little Sir Hugh.” The timeless tale of a boy who inadvertently kicks a ball over “the castle wall where no one dared to go,” is invited in by the mistress of the castle on the pretext of retrieving said ball, but, when he reluctantly goes in with her, is instead disemboweled and tossed down a well. I tell you, if I had a nickel for every time…

If this scenario seems vaguely familiar to those of you who have read Ulysses, it may be because, in the penultimate, “Ithaca” chapter, Stephen drunkenly sings an anti-Semitic version of the same song, to Bloom’s chagrin (study question: why do I refer to Stephen Daedalus as “Stephen” but Leopold Bloom as “Bloom?” Is it just the age difference?). That version goes thusly:

Little Harry Hughes and his schoolfellows all Went out for to play ball
And the very first ball little Harry Hughes played
He drove it o'er the jew's garden wall.
And the very second ball little Harry Hughes played
He broke the jew's windows all.

Then out there came the jew's daughter
And she all dressed in green.
`Come back, come back, you pretty little boy,
And play your ball again.'

`I can't come back and I won't come back
Without my schoolfellows all,
For if my master he did hear
He'd make it a sorry ball.'

She took him by the lilywhite hand
And led him along the hall
Until she led him to a room
Where none could hear him call.

She took a penknife out of her pocket
And cut off his little head,
And now he'll play his ball no more
For he lies among the dead.

Also, Nick Cave’s duet with PJ Harvey, “Henry Lee,” is noticeably based on the same source material.

As you can see, Stephen’s version is kind of dramatically inert. It ends quite brusquely, doesn’t it? So, she cut off his head, and now he’s dead. Bam! No wells for added dramatic effect. Although one is left pondering the mechanics of beheading someone with a penknife. Seems like it would take at least three cuts and be awfully messy. But perhaps when you’re a nefarious Jewess, you’re used to such things.

Actually, the Span one is by far the most disturbing of the three versions: in Stephen’s, the crime can simply be attributed to a weird manifestation of anti-Semitism; in the Cave version, the killer is a jealous prostitute—but in the Span, it’s totally inexplicable. The woman’s societal role is unclear, and she has no real motive. The part where “she fed him sugar sweet” is particularly macabre—if memory serves, (this is per Huysmans’ novel La-Bas), the infamous child killer Gilles de Rais would pamper his young victims in a similar manner before dispatching them. Does “she lay him on a dressing board” imply a sexual aspect? I do not know; all I can do is convey the sage advice of my undergraduate don, Ann Lauinger, who, advised her class that “if you think it’s there, it’s there.” Of course, she may have been underestimating the dirtiness of some of her charges’ minds.

Also, I like the well: note how in Cave’s version, the protagonist’s killer “[throws] him in this deep, deep well, more than one hundred feet.” Whereas, per Span, “she threw him in the old draw well, fifty fathoms deep.” Which works out to three hundred feet—now that is one hardcore deep well.

At any rate, I applaud the Span for bringing out the lugubriously grotesque aspects of the song: that’s definitely the way to do it. It’s one of my favorite Span tunes, so download it today.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Steeleye Span: "Two Magicians"

And now for what's sure to become an ultra-popular feature on this site, in the unlikely event that I don't forget about/lose interest in it: ruminations on the subject of Steeleye Span songs. I should say, songs *performed* by Steeleye Span; unless otherwise noted, these are all "traditional"...but they're "arranged" by the band, whatever that might entail. So. Anyway. "Two Magicians."

As you know if you listen to a lot of the Span, they perform an inordinate number of songs in which young girls are seduced and abandoned by caddish young men (e.g., "The Ups and Downs," "Cold Haily Windy Night," "Royal Forester," "Seventeen Come Sunday"). We presume that this reflects a certain sort of sexual anxiety on the part of the society that produced them. But that is another discussion.

At any rate, at first glance "Two Magicians" seems to be a first cousin of this genre of song, featuring as it does the word "maidenhead" (a common feature), and the male magician's repeated attempts to deflower, in reality or symbolically, the female one. However. I think you will find that this song is considerably more interesting than that.

We must look at the song's tone. In the chorus, the maiden, in spite of the definitiveness of her rejection or her would-be lover, sounds more playful, or even flirtatious, than severe. "You have done me no harm," she notes, seemingly emphasizing that she has no reason to dislike him. And when she says:

I'd rather die a maid
Ah, but then she said and be buried all in my grave
Than to have such a nasty, husky, dusky, fusky, musky
Coal black smith

it really sounds more like teasing than a serious prohibition. She may be serious in basic intent, but she seems to see it more as a game than as a violent, life-or-death struggle.

This perception is enforced by the verses, in which she transforms into something to escape him, and he changes into something else to catch her. These could easily seem predatory, but they don't. When the song says:

She became a rose, a rose all in the wood,
And he became a bumblebee and kissed her where she stood

...well, that just seems romantic to me. A rose being kissed by a bee is not a violent or invasive metaphor. Quite the antithesis, really. And check it:

She became a nun, a nun all dressed in white,
And he became a canting priest and prayed for her by night.

That's funny, is what that is. Can't you just picture him looking like a priest from Final Fantasy Tactics? This seems like less a quest to violate and more like a numinous game of tag, where she chooses something to change into and he has to find something he can change into that can interact with her. And so it goes, until we get to the final verse, sung in a significantly more subdued manner by Maddy Prior:

She became a corpse, a corpse all in the ground,
And he became the cold clay and smothered her all around.

Whoa. That puts a new spin on things. What are we to think here? Presumably, this is in some sense meant to be real death; a conclusion to the song. Still, are we to construe it as a sort of "victory" for him? I prefer to think otherwise: that the previous transformation duels described are symbolic of much more; that they represent a kind of elaborate, life-long courting ritual, which culminates in this final "marriage." Note that she only says that she'd "rather die a maid." Having done that, why shouldn't they be together in eternity? Yes...all evidence to the contrary, I'm a romantic at heart. Which is probably why I HATE the last verse of this alternate version that I found:

She became a quilt, a quilt all on her bed
And he became a coverlet, and gained her maidenhead!

Gee. Quel excitement. Talk about stripping the song of all sense of drama. And the exclamation point is in the original, suggesting that someone somewhere thought that this was a clever/amusing ending. Talk about adding insult to injury. Goodbye to ambiguity! So much for romance! "He chased her for a while; then, he fucked her." How...edifying. I have no idea which version is more "authentic" (if such a judgment can be meaningfully made), this or the Span one, but in either case, Span made a good call here. I highly recommend this song; your local file-theft network ought to have it.

Whee, that was fun--I feel like the college freshman who gets away with writing a paper on "Textual Ambiguity in the Lyrics of Robert Smith" for a poetry class.

Sunday, May 01, 2005

Fun with Chick Tracts

You know, I'm not usually a big fan of the Chick Tracts that don't have an original story, but I have to say, I'm really loving this one. The artwork has this hilarious Mad Magazine thing going on. Just check out how delighted the guy in the first panel is to be eating. Or the way Adam and Eve are violently devouring the fruit. Or the crazy-person look on the face of the guy explaining how Jesus healed the sick and raised the dead. And some of the writing is just priceless. The ten best lines:

01. "We all came from the same parents. NOT THESE"

02. "Why do we do bad things? Because we're all sinners. What a bummer....how come?"

03. "Will sinners go to heaven? NO! THAT'S BAD NEWS!"

04. "We're all going to hell. That's NOT cool!

05. "But the papa wasn't human...God was the daddy..."

06. "'He's ALIVE?' 'It's never happened before!' 'No, no, no! It can't happen!'

07. "Fucking fuckety fuck! There's nothing wrong with adultery or lying!"

08. "I love my sin...oops!"

09. "I LOVE being nasty..."

10. "Either way...You WILL bow down to Jesus." (...so he's kind of like General Zod, then?)

Anyway. Fun times.