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The Best Films of 2015 – My 2016 List of Favorites

Scrambling like a maniac to get this post out before heading out the door to our favorite annual Oscar party where it’s my hope to once again win the pool as I managed to last year. I do this list each year, and as always, these are not my predictions, but rather my personal list of favorites from the previous year. This year lots of tips of the hat to a few really great documentaries, some disappointment that The Good Dinosaur didn’t get nominated, and some genuine befuddlement that The Martian got as much attention as it did…let’s not even get started on some of the most ridiculous science scenarios that I just could not get over.

Mad Max: Fury Road

#1 – Mad Max: Fury Road
Hands- down my favorite movie of the year. It should win every category that it’s nominated in, but will most likely only win in technical categories and potentially (hopefully) for costumes, production design and film editing as well. Effectively twenty years since the screen was first finished, this post- apocalyptic heavy-metal joy ride is true to the dystopian original, The Road Warrior, is so pumped up on high-octane angst and exhilaration, that we ride along in what I consider to be THE action movie of the new millennium. This film effectively delivers on the promise of everything we always hoped that Mad Max could ultimately be, and is perhaps among the most fulfilling film experiences I’ve had in years.

#2 – The Revenant
The film that will almost certainly land Leonardo DiCaprio his first Oscar is a remarkable feat of filmmaking. Beautifully shot, The Revenant is epic in scope. A brutal and grueling tale of fur trappers in the early nineteenth century in Montana and South Dakota, the film is a classic man against all odds story of survival, tenacity and sheer force of will. Seemingly impossible to fathom, the story is purportedly based on an actual account of one Hugh Glass who apparently endured all the grueling punishment that we watch in awe and horror as the spectacle of The Revenant unfolds. Alejandro G. Iñárritu has delivered one of the great films of his, and will likely win for the second year in a row, and while it is a remarkable film is deserving, it is still not Mad Max; Fury Road.

#3 – The Big Short
Ugh. Yes, it is that good. You could call it a horror story, only it all really happened and we all had the displeasure of having to live through it. The Big Short is a scathing indictment of the events that eventually led to the real-estate /financial meltdown that were the result of the deregulation of the financial industry during the Bush/Cheney regime. Complex schemes and the sheer voracity and greed of big business and Wall Street are handily explained in this page-turner of a movie. Great performances help propel The Big Short to greatness. Highly recommended to anyone who still feels confused about what the hell it was exactly that happened in America that created the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression.

#4 – Amy
Amy is the Music Documentary of the year as well as documentary of the year. I was pretty upset when the news hit that Amy Winehouse died. This film succeeds in telling the story of one of the more meteoritic rises to fame and the subsequent plunge into the ultimate demise. Amy strips away the entire tabloid manufactured perception of who we think she was and instead uncovers a sweet, passionate talent doing her best to navigate the choppy waters of the media juggernaut, of celebrity and wealth. Tons of unseen private footage gives us an unprecedented look into a young woman who has a great talent, but is simply trying to find her way through the pressure cooker of life under a microscope. Exhilarating and infuriating, v cuts through the false pretense and gives us a glimpse of a venerable and lovable life marred by the insatiable hunger of the cruel media world.

#5 – Lambert & Stamp
A very close second to Amy, Lambert & Stamp is an engrossing documentary that shows how a young couple of entrepreneurial young British men, Kit Lambert and Chris Stamp, with no prior managerial experience, effectively adopted a young band—The Who—and managed to propel them to the heights of global stardom during the ‘60s and ‘70s. This is a directorial first from Cinematographer James Cooper, and is utterly compelling. The film is about the Who, but is as the title suggests more about this odd-couple team, and is from beginning-to-end a fun and sometimes bittersweet account of two men who most of us were likely never even remotely aware of prior to the making of this film.

#6 – Ex Machina
While I expect Alecia Vikander to win for best supporting actress for her work in The Danish Girl, I preferred her in Ex Machina. I also preferred this film as well. Ex Machina seems like a David Fincher film, but it’s not. A sci-fi suspense flick, Ex Machina explores the extent to which Artificial Intelligence can cross over into the realm of the undetectable and becomes unsettling as we begin to wonder who it is that is ultimately being tricked and manipulated.

#7 – Room
Edge-of-your-seat, uncomfortable and deeply emotional, Room tells the dark story of a young woman held captive in a single room and her son, Jack who has never known anything outside of the four walls that is the entirety of this reality. While most of the attention has been (and my guess as well will be on Oscar night) on Brie Larson, I think the ultimate treat is young Jacob Tremblay, who plays her son, both inside and during the second half, when they manage to escape and Jack first experiences the world outside of the four walls of Room. There is a lot about this film to get unsettled about, but in the end, it is story about the enduring power of love and devotion, and is a film that packs a lot more emotional punch than you might expect from reading this or another random review.

#8 – Spotlight
Untangling the web of deceit and conspiracy within the Catholic Church, Spotlight tells the story of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Boston Globe investigation that would rock the world when it uncovered. The systemic sexual abuse had been going on in the Catholic Church and the decades-long cover-up at the highest levels of Boston’s religious, legal, and government establishment. This is not exactly what you’d call a feel-good romp; you cannot help but to feel angry and disgusted our three heroes uncover layer upon layer of one pedophile priest after another.

#9 – What Happened, Miss Simone?
#3 best music documentary of the year. More to come when I have the time to finish.

#10 – Best of Enemies
Since I still have to shower before hitting the brown carpet, I will come back with my review of this later…either tonight or after work tomorrow night. Watch the trailer and just know that it’s great.

Posted in Art, Movies.

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Bernie vs. Hillary – It is, but It isn’t

I recently read a piece that opened with “As Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton have become head-to-head rivals, their denizens have begun attacking each other, the Democratic Party eating itself like a snake that loves science and Planned Parenthood. And things have gotten ugly.” I have been watching this on Facebook, and indeed it appears to be true and frankly rather disappointing.  I’ve witnessed so many people who I consider to be intelligent thinking individuals, jumping on the band wagon, quick to bash each other, as well as whichever other democratic candidate they’re opposed to during this pre-election neurosis.

Personally, I’m sick of it.

I get it. You like Hillary; You like Bernie. I like Bernie–hell, I think he’s fantastic. He speaks most directly to what I believe in, and even at age seventy four, after thirty five years in office, he is still an idealist whose commitments are as passionate now as they were when he began his political career in 1971. I genuinely hope he gets the nomination as the democratic candidate for the 45th president of the United States. It may well happen, but it also may well not, and if it ends up being Hillary, she has my vote. Will I be as excited as I would be for Bernie? No, but I refuse to engage in Hillary bashing, as I think there is more at stake between the ideologies of the two parties than between these two candidates.

The Democratic Candidates

Is Hillary more closely tied to Wall Street and the political establishment? You bet. That said, she’s ultimately still on the same team. I completely reject the assertion that she is more like a Republican than she is a Democrat. I am even more tired hearing folks who insist that Democrats and Republicans are essentially all the same. That argument is lazy and ill-informed. If anybody doubts that, they might want to spend a little time doing some research and see how each party stacks up on Reproductive Rights, Healthcare, Social Security, Equal Pay, Tax Reform, Gun Control, Gay Rights and Education. Are Hillary and Bernie entirely aligned in these areas? No, but compared to any of the candidates vying to the GOP nomination, the contrast is stark and defining.  Even more critical to consider: whoever wins the next election, they will almost certainly have control over the next one, if not two Supreme Court Justices. That—more than anything—will have the most lasting influence on legislation in the decades to come, and over many of the key issues listed above. Don’t think that the GOP is not painfully aware of this fact.

So seriously, people need to shut it with the anti-Hillary hate-speech. The GOP is most often the party who lead their attacks and manipulate their constituency using hate and fear. I thought we were the party who were supposed to be above all that.

People are just being passionate, is that it? That’s great, but being passionate is not an acceptable excuse for being antagonistic and judgmental, especially if it’s not even backed up with an informed and well-reasoned point of view. I am seeing so many Democrats engaging in Neanderthal bombast and histrionic hissy fits that are really only fitting for the throngs of Trump supporters, high on misplaced outrage and low on IQ.

Maybe that’s it: Perhaps the Trump attack methodology has actually rubbed off on so many of my friends who are engaging in rhetoric that seems seriously out of character. It’s a strange thing to watch.

The “debate” that is going on between Clinton supporters and Sanders supporters is not healthy for the Democratic party as a whole, unless it really is a debate. A heated and passionate one is fine, but it should still be civil and respectful. More important in my mind however, I believe we should be more concerned with what sort of future would we be looking at if somebody like Cruz or Trump were to ascend to the highest seat of power in the land. That thought makes me wince.

Anybody should feel free to disagree, but I hope they take the time to know what they’re talking about and do their damnedest to have a civil dialogue. Nobody has to like both candidates, but everyone may have to accept that the one they prefer may not be the one who’ll be running in the end. I may well have to accept that as well.

I just hope that it’s Bernie.

Posted in Personal Ramblings.

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Bowie’s Gone and I Feel Lost

It’s been a week since the passing of David Bowie, and as much as I try, I cannot shake it. Feeling lost is really the only way that this can be described, but it’s difficult to reconcile how hard this has hit me having never even met the man.

And like so many of us, he feels so much a part of me and so with his departure from this plane, it feels as if a piece of me has died as well. So much of his music has unwittingly become a part of the fabric and filter of how I hear music, of how I think about music. It’s been this way for a long time, and his departure has left me feeling stunned.

David Bowie

I am not alone in this feeling. So many of my friends on Facebook have been experiencing the same unshakable feeling of emptiness, and I don’t know that any of us can fully articulate why this particular loss has been so hard. We just know that it does. It aches. Many of my friends find themselves crying uncontrollably at different times during the day(s). They try to find meaning, but there isn’t any.  I haven’t been able to cry, but it’s right there under the surface and feels like it could burst at any moment. But it doesn’t.

I showed up late to the party. It was the summer of 1980 and had just turned nineteen in Rotterdam a week or two before.  My friend Aaron Berg and I were about two thirds through a ten-week bicycle tour of Europe. We were staying for a week in Amsterdam with the family of a friend and co-worker, Simon Van Waay, a wonderfully sparkling Dutch man who—in his eighties—had a spirit younger than most of the students that came in and out of the campus bookstore where he and I worked together.

It was nice staying in an actual house with real beds and bathrooms: most of our trip was being done with sleeping bags, bedrolls and a tent, staying wherever we ended up each day at dusk.

On the second or third day of our stay in Amsterdam, I got hit with an ugly virus. For the better part of two days, my fever held at 102, and even after it broke, I was weak and spent, unable to do much of anything. During the days, I was mostly alone, with Aaron out exploring the city, our hosts at work and their kids doing whatever it is that Dutch kids do in the summertime.

My one saving grace was the stereo in that house, and while many of the records were by artists that I was either unfamiliar with or unimpressed by, there was one— the timeless, magnificent Hunky Dory. During those sick days, I listened almost exclusively to this record, unable to believe the depth and breadth of the music, the lyrical calligraphy, and the adventurous range of it all. My entire concept of what popular music could be was being turned on its head, and I felt as if I was being transformed in a way that only those life-changing records in our lives can do.

Before Europe, I had already resolved that I wanted to become a musician and that would eventually play in a band that wrote and played original material. This new discovery was fuel like nothing I could have imagined.

Prior to Europe I had certainly heard “Changes,” “Fame” and “Rebel Rebel” on the radio, however I never paid them much attention, as I had been more entrenched with prog-rock, fusion and jazz during my last two years on high school. Realizing that this gem was almost a decade old at the time of my discovery was in itself unfathomable. If Hunky Dory record was this visionary, I wondered what the rest of Bowie’s output was like. I had become a fascinated devotee of this strange creature, and was about to embark on one of the more obsessive musical explorations of my life.

After Europe, I visited my friends Tom and Ben for a month in Seattle, where they had an apartment to themselves while their father was teaching English on a boat somewhere in the Philippines. He had paid the rent in advance, and left the place in the hands of his two teenage sons, my two best friends at the time.

Ben, Tom and Daniel - Seattle, 1980

We had virtually no money, but somehow managed to scrounge food and the occasional beer. At the center of everything that went on in that apartment was a turntable and a small but impressive selection of records. A couple of the records that will forever be tied to the memories from that party month are Ziggy Stardust, and the then recently-released Scary Monsters (and Super Creeps), to this day still easily one of my favorite records by Bowie.

After my visit to Seattle, I spent nine months living with my grandparents in Redondo Beach, working and saving my money for my eventual move to Seattle. I bought my first guitar, a six-string Ovation. I began teaching myself songs. One of them was “Andy Warhol” from Hunky Dory. I also started teaching myself “OhYou Pretty Things” on my grandparents’ piano.  I was working at Millie Riera’s Seafood Grotto,  with people who were all in their twenties and thirties, and they were more than happy to further open my eyes and ears to more Bowie. I became deeply obsessed with Station to Station, Low and my favorite at that time, “Heroes.” A couple of my more savvy co-workers took things a step further, and made a point of turning me on to Brian Eno and in particular, Another Green World, Before and After Science and Music for Films, all records that I became infatuated with in parallel with my new-found devotion to Bowie.

In the summer of 1981, I finally moved to Seattle, a city that would remain my home for the next 22 years. I ended up playing in several bands, the most notable of which was Skin Yard, an outfit that I co-founded with Jack Endino. Our first show was in the summer of 1985, during the earliest days of the scene that would eventually be known as Grunge. At first we did not really fit with much of the music that was contemporary to us. Our singer, Ben McMillan was often criticized for being “too Bowie-esque,” and indeed, Ben was a BIG Bowie fan. Keep in mind that this criticism was leveled at a time when Bowie’s most recent recordings were Let’s Dance and Tonight. These were records that were the very antithesis of what our burgeoning music scene was about, however Ben’s influence was ultimately rooted in the earlier material from before Scary Monsters. The first cover that Skin Yard ever ever did was “She Shook Me Cold” from The Man Who Sold the World, Bowie’s second release. We released a live recording of the song as a bonus track to our first record when it came out on CD. I still think it is a worthy (if not bombastic and sloppy) rendition.

None of this however, gets the meat of what it is…was… about Bowie that has so many of us feeling such a sense of anguish in his death. What was/is it about him that has left us with such a sense of pain and loss?

His presence was magnetic and his talent utterly breathtaking. He was always an anomaly, intensely public, yet intensely private at the same time. A dichotomy that seems near impossible, yet he managed to glide effortlessly between them.

His creative genius is unparalleled, and even though he laid a few eggs in my book (everything after Scary Monsters and before The Buddha of Suburbia, and then again his records Hours and Reality), his albums individually are more innovative than the entire catalogs of most artists. Bowie’s “bad” albums (see above, and feel free to disagree) would be a remarkable achievement for the average mediocre band whose music fills the airwaves today. I can only imagine what it must be like to have to try to measure all your new work against a bar that was set so high – a bar that you set yourself. It’s like Martin Scorcese trying to make another brilliant piece of work after having released Taxi Driver… It took him a while.

I think for many, David Bowie is the artist that most inexorably marks their musical life, and it’s pretty easy to fathom that we’ll never experience another artist in our lives that will have the creative impact and influence this Bowie’s work has imprinted on all of us. It’s more than his music: It’s his essence. It permeates the ether, and now with his final record “,”he’s left as an enduring gift, a deliberate and thankful goodbye to all of us, and the most elegant departure, with Lazarus as the signature and his final parting glance. Contextualizing this final release as part of his greater oeuvre is nothing short of mind-blowing.

Many of us share a certain connection with each other based the shared love we have for Bowie, and in the ways that his music has altered the ways that we reflect on music, think about ourselves and about how to better live creative lives.

With his passing, we have ultimately lost a part of ourselves, but if you try to consider a world where he never existed, where these gifts were never known, we would have to consider entirely different versions of ourselves as well.

For this, I am deeply grateful. His life contains lessons on how we can better live our own lives. That said, shaking this is still gonna take more time.

I can't concentrate

Posted in Music, Personal Ramblings.

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Too Many Guns, Too Many Dead

I grew up at a time when Viet Nam played front and center in the lives of our nation, when the war was being broadcast in unedited detail on our television sets every single night. It was a horrible thing to behold, and was literally tearing the consciousness and the social fabric of this country apart.  I was raised by people who believed that our participation in that war was unwarranted and unconscionable. As a kid, I used to have regular nightmares of war. I joined my mom in several protests against the war, a war that we as a nation finally succeeded in ending largely due to the veracity and persistence of protest here and around the world. These experiences, along with the many assassinations and murders that were occurring during the sixties and seventies, firmly cemented my steadfast opposition to the obsessive culture of guns that has infected these United States of America.

Guns and Country

Many years ago, when I was still living in Seattle, at one of the parties that I threw throughout the year, I had a friend walk up to me and inform me that one of the guests was—apparently—carrying a concealed loaded handgun. He was a friend-of-a-friend who was also at the party, so he—like my friends—was welcome as well. His gun however was not.

A little dumbfounded, I walked up to the man and welcomed him to my party and then cut to the chase.

I said “I need to ask you a question. A friend of mine informed me that you are carrying a loaded weapon on your person. Is this true?”

He said that yes, in fact it was true. He was polite about it.

I said, “I need to ask that you take your gun out and put in your car.”

A little incredulous he asked, “Are you serious?”

I told him that I was and said that either the gun needed to be removed from the party or he would need to leave himself.  I assured him that he was welcome, but that his gun was not. He pondered this for a moment, and then left. He was unwilling to remove the gun from under his jacket.  I was more than a little surprised, but accepted that his perceived “right to carry a loaded weapon” was more important to him than an evening engaging with a house full of fantastic and fascinating people.  I still reflect on this and am reminded how skewed some people’s ideology is from mine.

I am writing this post in the wake of the recent shootings of nine attendees at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC on June 18, 2015 by one Dylann Roof.  I have been thinking a lot about the epidemic of public mass murders in our country and have reached something of an emotional breaking point.

Jon Stewart spoke for so many of us I think in his sad and seemingly desperate response to the incident, a video that took over my Facebook feed as so many of my friends were seemingly feeling just as distraught as I was.

Charleston is just the latest in a seemingly never-ending series of killings. Remember Isla Vista on May 23, 2014? 7 dead, 14 wounded. Remember Fort Hood on April 2, 2014? 4 Dead, 14 wounded. Remember Washington D.C. on September 16, 2013? 13 killed, 3 wounded. Remember Santa Monica June 7, 2013? 5 Killed. Remember Newtown on December 14, 2012 (Sandy Hook Elementary School)? 27 killed, I wounded. Remember Brookfield on October 21. 2012? 3 dead, 4 wounded. Remember Minneapolis on September 27 2012? 7 killed, 2 wounded. Remember Oak Creek on August 5, 2012? 6 killed, 3 wounded. Remember Aurora on July 20, 2012? 12 killed, 70 wounded. I could keep going, because the list seems inexhaustible.  The majority of these murder sprees were executed using assault rifles.

There are another three dozen that I did not list since Columbine. Remember Columbine on April 20, 1999? 15 Dead, 24 wounded.

I have a number of friends who debate the tired and faulty Second Amendment argument, that we are guaranteed the right to own firearms in America, but this is a red herring.  It is also lazy.

Discussions about the Second Amendment is not about the right to own a firearm (presumably for the purpose of hunting, “recreation” or self-defense), it was created at a time before we had an organized military as a part of our country.   In this last century, the language has been perverted to extend to the ownership of semi-automatic assault rifles—weapons created purely for killing and for war—as somehow being our god-given right.

I call bullshit.

The simple fact is that we have the single highest per-capita gun ownership of any county in the world. Some claim that we have more guns in America than we have people, but these numbers are debatable. Wikipedia says that the number is approximately 88 guns per 100 residents. In either case, is this something that we should be proud of?

Guns Ownership in America
And with more guns, it just so happens that the U.S. has far more gun-related killings than any other developed country: Each year, more than 30,000 people die in the United States in firearm-related incidents (over a third of those are murders and almost two thirds of those are suicides).

Gun Murder Rates Around the World

In a 2013 article for The Atlantic online that compared gun homicides in US cities to some of the deadliest places in the world, the authors created a map, that shows that a number of U.S. cities have gun homicide rates in line with the most deadly nations in the world:  Atlanta has the same gun murder rate as South Africa, Detroit as El Salvador, Phoenix equal to Mexico’s gun homicide rate. The article goes on to point out that if New Orleans were a country, it would rank second in the world for homicide.

Homicides by State Compared to Countries

So with the single highest per capita rate of ownership and the highest rate of gun-related killings than any other developed country, why is there such a virulent fight for the right to own even more?  We seem to hold on for dear life to our right to “bear arms,” and as seems to be the American way, enough is never enough. What is wrong with us? Maybe it’s time to reassess.

Back to the gun fanatics reading this, please take note that NOBODY is looking to strip the Second Amendment from the Bill of Rights, so please –leave that argument at the door.

In an OpEd from John Paul Stevens (an associate justice of the Supreme Court from 1975 to 2010), he makes the point that it was generally understood in legal circles that the Second Amendment specifically limited the scope to uses of arms that were related to military activities.

Indeed, the text of the Second Amendment provides that “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” That is by the way, the ENTIRE text of the Second Amendment.

For the sake of removing any ambiguity, but also of restoring sanity and a desire to reduce the incidence of gun violence in America, Stevens suggested the addition of five simple words to the language:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militia shall not be infringed.”

To me, the intent of this language is/was already clear, but without this additional clarification, the unnerving hubris of the NRA and their incredibly powerful lobby will continue to have free run of our government and its policies regarding gun ownership and gun control.

The simple fact however, is that there is no good reason why anybody needs to own a semi-automatic assault rifle. You like target practice? Good for you. Use a regular rifle. I think it’s time to accept that we need to restrict the scope of gun ownership in this country.  Don’t you want to see a decline in the mass-murders that now seem all too commonplace? …and please don’t give me the mental health debate…

The mental health argument is even worse than the Second Amendment argument. Forget about the fact that this argument seems to only be used when the assailant is a white perpetrator (blacks wielding guns are invariably called“thugs“or “terrorists”), because the unassailable fact is that the more guns there are, the more gun deaths there will be as a result.  It does not matter whether the murderer has mental health issues or not. A person with mental illness cannot shoot up a theater or a school or a government facility unless he has the weapon with which to murder.  It’s a pretty simple formula, one that should not take a mathematician to figure out.

Sadly I agree with the Economist that regardless of this never-ending parade of murder sprees, that we will not likely see any gun control in this country. But can we at least finally fess up that with fewer semi-automatic assault rifles, we will see fewer murders happening in the U.S.?

Seriously America, what has became of our common sense?

Additional Reading:

Battleground America from the New Yorker

Gun violence in the United States (Wikipedia)

Posted in Personal Ramblings.

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Springtime in the Mojave – A Rumination on Nature

There is a reason why she’s called “Mother Earth,” and it really helps to get away from a city to fully appreciate the earth we live on and the exquisite variety of life that exists on it. Growing up, I spent a good number of years living away from cities, and most (all?) of those years were without a television. Under those conditions, you invariably spend a lot of time in the woods or along the beach, or wherever you happen to be living your life, but the point being that without all the fabricated trappings of this modern life, you are allowed to reconnect with the sublime beauty and delicacy of nature. We tend to forget that we are in fact part of nature, not just an observer. These days—for me—it’s the desert. On first glimpse, the desert can seem desolate and barren, but the more time you spend there, the more you quickly realize the richness and diversity of life that lives there. Last weekend, we were out at our place in the desert, Rancho de Ardilla, with my old friend Sluggo, his lovely wife Laurian, and their two remarkable kids, Dregen and Blixa. They came down from the Bay Area for an all-too-short weekend, but it was such a nice visit, I think we’re all still jonesin’ for more. This is a wonderful time of year to make a trip out to the Mojave. All the spring flowers and cacti are in innumerable states of bloom, and much of the wildlife is emerging from their different states of their hibernation. During our visit we saw a little nest built inside of a cluster of a “Jumping Cholla” cactus (Opuntia fulgida) lined with a the finest and softest of bird feathers and bits of thread, and at the bottom, three tiny little blue eggs. The mama bird is apparently able to fly effortlessly in and out, but there is no predator that could realistically navigate the treachery of this particular cactus to get to the eggs. The following morning, I went to get another peak, but the mama was keeping her babies warm and flew away as soon as I got close. I apologized and gave her space so that she could return. I am still blown away by this remarkably profound occurrence in nature. Bird eggs in cactus A little later that same morning, I was coming back from somewhere, and upon nearing the house, was informed that there was a snake on the porch, and with our previous experience with a snake in pretty much that same location, Patty and Laurian were keeping everybody inside. I took a quick look just to establish that it was not a rattle snake (it was not). What we had here was a beautiful (and extraordinarily long) gopher snake, very common out in that area, and good for keeping the smaller rodent population in check. The gopher snake is in fact rather shy and wants nothing more than to be left alone. Sluggo and his family left to head back to the Bay Area, but I continued to keep tags on our little gopher snake (which by then I had begun calling “Herbert”), and eventually s/he curled up among a dense cluster of what I believe to be a Euphorbia cactus. I was watering the various trees and bushes on the property as well as giving a (smaller) drink of water to the various cacti as well. I gave a nice spray to the Euphorbia cluster and Herbert immediately lifted its head and began drinking as best it could from the water as it dribbled down along the edge of the cactus shaft. Eventually the water pooled up a bit along the base and s/he dropped her head down and was gulping as much as possible before it soaked down into the sand below. I went back and we repeated this ritual several times over the course of about twenty minutes, and I swear during that time Herbert began looking a little more filled out and vibrant. I was likely imagining this, but it was delightful watching this lovely little creature in the simple solemnity of that moment as it was drinking and quickly as was possible, because in the desert, who knows how long it might be until the next rainfall? Herbert the Gopher Snake With every visit the desert, I get closer to my sense of place on this planet, and am increasingly drawn out there as a likely place to eventually land on a more permanent basis. I like living in a city, but progressively I find a deeper connection to myself and my inner peace in a place where the simpler aspects of life are on display everywhere you look. There is something so immediately Zen about spending time in the desert, and finding my Zen self is something that I strive for each and every day.

Posted in Personal Ramblings.

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Billy and the Kid

I cannot recall for sure, but it was either 1991 or 1992. The Smashing Pumpkins were playing at the Paramount in Seattle and I was on the list +1 for the show. My son, Dashiell was twelve at the time and was a pretty big fan of the band (as was I). There was a special after show meet-and-greet Billy event, and about 150 of us were all hanging around waiting for the star of the show to arrive.

After about half an hour, and hush comes over the room, and my son excitedly whispers “Look pop, it’s Billy Corgan!” And so it was, and damn, he is a seriously imposing figure – especially with the extra six inches of lift that his Frankenstein platforms where giving him. Everybody in the room seems too paralyzed to walk up to their idol, so I say to Dashiell, “Go up and introduce yourself!” He says, “Really? You think so?” I’m like, “yeah, your twelve, you can still do stuff that you won’t be able to get away with as easily when your older. Go talk to him!” So he does.

Billy Corgan's Eyes

My 4’3″ tall son walks up to the imposing giant of a figure and being the very first person in the room with enough nerve to break the room, says, “Hi, I’m Dashiell!” All the young worshipers seem to be in a state of utter disbelief that this kid just walked up and began chatting with Billy. My son quickly becomes so confident that he tells Billy which songs he didn’t feel were as strong and why etc. The room is still awfully quiet so you can pretty much hear the entire conversation, and looking around the room I can see that certain people have a horrified look on their faces, that this little kid would ever have such nerve to offer any genuine opinions/criticism to the man of the hour. The best thing though was that Billy was super cool with my son and had a very real and engaged conversation with him. He seemed genuinely interested in what he had to say and was not at all the rock-star persona that I’ve heard about so often.

Billy talked with Dashiell for close to fifteen minutes, and everybody in the room was starting to get noticeably annoyed and agitated, no doubt fearing that they wouldn’t get their turn. I finally walked up and  said “We should go Dash,” and we did. I wish I’d have brought a camera. Great show followed by a really fun memory with my son.

Posted in Music, Personal Ramblings.

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The One About the Snake

I don’t know much about snakes, but I do know that rattlesnakes are on the list of the things that are best to avoid close up.

In 2013, I learned that there is a particular species of rattlesnake called the Green Mojave that is apparently one of the most venomous in the United States. As the name suggests, the Green Mojave is indigenous to the Mojave Desert. It can be found in and around the area surrounding Joshua Tree National Park, the very same area where Patty and I had been looking to buy a weekend getaway since late 2011.

In August of 2013, we put an offer on a place that was being considered for a short sale, and in the meantime the hopefully-soon-to-not-be-owner offered to let us stay at the property to get a better feel for the place, a lovely gesture designed such that we might begin to think of the property as ours. We chose to go out on Labor Day weekend. We packed up the dogs and a weekends worth of crap for a laid back couple of days in the high desert. Double bonus, it turns out that we were going out the same weekend as the Joshua Tree Music Festival as well as the beginning of the High Desert Test Sites. The music festival was probably out, but the test sites sounded like an interesting series of destinations and art installations in various locations between JT and the east end of Wonder Valley.

We headed out Friday evening, grabbed a bite in town before settling in to our cozy little cabin, one that had been uninhabited for several years, one that we hoped might someday be ours. Full and spent from an abnormally long drive, we plugged in the iPod, poured a couple of tequilas and let the calm quite of the Mojave Desert begin to seep in as the warm day gave way to another one of those startlingly quite desert nights.

I’m sitting in the living room, looking through the window towards the long range of mountains to the north, marveling at the endless sea of stars above, while Patty, the consummate worrywart, steps out onto the front porch. She calls back in the house saying, “Honey, I think I hear a rattlesnake.”

My original nickname for Patty was My Sweet Little Panic-Attack, so my first thought was “of course you do (sarcasm inflected here in case you couldn’t figure that out).” I said, “We are in the desert, but I don’t imagine there are any snakes nearby.”

I stepped out on the porch with her to listen, and I think she might be right. It’s about the only thing that we can hear in this unmoving still. Not only does it sound like a rattlesnake, but it sounds like it’s not that far off. I comment that in all the times we’ve come out here over these last seven or so years, we’ve never actually seen one.

We both keep listening, and then I look down to see that the snake is about two feet from where we’re standing. Coiled up and rattling, letting us know that it’s about as freaked out as I have suddenly become. I don’t remember what I said then, but it was a shriek. Eleven-year-old girl shriek, loud, my brain is burning and I’ve totally slipped into my primal self. I didn’t know that I was capable of jumping backwards six feet in a single bound, but as it turns out, I am! Patty is apparently paralyzed. I am squealing something unintelligible, something line along the lines of, “honeyyouneedtogetinhere, rightnowtheresasnakeontheporch, whyareyoustillstandingthere?!”

Coiled Rattlesnake - Not as big as it appears

I am not acting very calmly.

Patty suddenly re-enters the world of present-moment awareness and realizes what has just occurred, and jumps back in the house pulling the screen door shut behind her. I slam the main door and am looking for a series of eight bolt locks to further insure our safety. My head is spinning and I have absolutely no idea what I am supposed to do next, so I do the only thing that makes any sense at the moment: I grab this gallon-sized plastic margarita glass—apparently there as more than just decor, because there is no human capable of drinking an alcoholic drink that size—and fill it with water, open the door and throw the water on the snake effectively drenching it. A classic Woody Allen moment, only we’re dealing with a venomous snake instead of a Lobster.

Patty starts cracking up. “What’s the water supposed to do?!?” I begin to realize how ridiculous my little act of machismo is, however for a moment the snake does seem a little dazed.

And then it isn’t.

It begins to retreat, winding backwards, rattle fully engaged. It’s clearly feeling more threatened than anything. I on the other hand am in full flip-out mode. I tell Patty to go back inside and I begin to look around for something to smash the snake with. I am not as worried about myself as I am for the dogs who are both inside, and have no idea what the hell’s going on, other than the fact that something is not right and I am acting like a complete nut-job. I want the dogs to be able to run around outside, so I cannot have a rattlesnake hanging outside our front door, or anywhere in the yard for that matter.

I find a rock and lob it at the snake from an overly cautious distance. It lands on the middle of its body. I step a little closer and watch for the next several minutes. I think I may have killed it, but eventually the snake begins to move, and starts to try to wriggle out from under the rock. Another 5 seconds, and it manages to get out from under the rock entirely, slithering away seemingly unscathed, rattling its way to a low bursage bush a few yards away slipping  into its coarse foliage. I’m hoping its hurt, and decide to go back inside until the morning when there’s adequate light to see.

I feel the need to pour another drink. I make sure it’s a tall one.

It seems that the light pours in much earlier than back home in Los Angeles. I’ve had a restless night of sleep dreaming of snakes and checking on the dogs every hour or so. I trade my pajamas and slippers for a proper pair of pants and sneakers and see that the snake is still draped among the branches of the bush. I’m hoping that the snake has perhaps died during the night and go searching for a stick long enough to dislodge him from a safe distance. Patty is up now and is watching at an even safer distance through the window from the inside of our little desert snake farm.

I find an old branch that’s been cut to about four feet and poke at the snake, pulling it from the bush. It drops to the ground. At first, he’s motionless, then it wakes up, and rather quickly coils up in a defensive posture, rattle poking up and warning me that this is one pissed off groggy little snake. I run back inside to retrieve Gulliver’s Margarita glass, bring it back out and without thinking about it much, throw it upside-down over the snake, coiled up and not too pleased. I place the rock from the night before on top of the overturned glass, trying to figure out what the next course of action should be.

Snake under glass

I suppose it’s thanks to my hippy upbringing, but in my somewhat less panicked state, I don’t want to kill this angry little creature.  I hatch the idea that we can simply relocate the snake somewhere away from the cabin, and everybody can go on with their unfettered lives. We will hang out unencumbered, and the snake can find a new set of friends in a new patch of desert, one that is far away from our now-tainted little slice of paradise.

I enlist Patty’s help in finding a flat piece of metal or something that I can slide under the plastic margarita glass; something that will allow us to transport him in an enclosed space with zero wriggle room for potential escape. Somehow in this moment Patty is not viewing me a completely insane. Patty finds a dartboard hanging on one of the outside walls beneath the overhang off the kitchen and brings it over. It’s perfect. I manage to slide the snake-under-plastic onto the dartboard. In this moment, this all makes some strange kind of sense. What could possibly go wrong?

Patty starts her Prius  and I move the whole snake under overturned margarita terrarium structure over, carefully setting it on my lap while Patty begins the slow and careful drive west along the dirt and sand road, turning north up along Godwin Road.  We drive an extra half mile or so further until we decide we’ve gone far enough. Patty shuts off the car. I get out carefully so as not to free the snake prematurely while still on my lap, and walk another hundred feet further into the desert where I fling it as quickly away from where I am standing. The snake winds away, rattling its way hotly into another bush. I am pretty sure it’s telling me to fuck off, but my translation abilities are sorely lacking. I feel like a low-rent gladiator amped on adrenaline, and am proud that I took the time and made the effort to save a life rather than destroy it.

And with that, we set out for a day of fun and art installation adventure. For the next six plus hours, we drive all over the place experiencing a fantastic array of desert art installations. From large parabolic mirrors tucked in to the rocks and a community of crocheted tents, to a glass art installation inside of a trailer that had made the journey from New Mexico and the glorious and virtually incomprehensible subterranean “secret restaurant,” the evening culminating at The Palms, one of the more surreal and fantastic watering holes in this little slice of the Mojave Desert. They were hosting a fireworks display of sorts as a closing ceremony, so we sipped on a couple of drinks while waiting for dusk to fall.

The fireworks were not anything to write home about, but The Palms is always a fun time and is just a few miles away. We decided to return to the homestead for the rest of the evening and to let the dogs out to pee.  In a few short minutes we’re pulling into the homestead. Patty’s still in the car with the headlights on as I open the kitchen door to let the furry kids out to relieve themselves. It’s dark out except for the headlights of the car, and as both dogs begin running towards the mesquite tree in the corner, and in that split second, I see the rattlesnake sidewinding from the same spot on the porch where we first saw it towards the same bursage where it had spent the previous night! This was the same snake, and over the course of the day, it had traveled the half mile plus and returned to our house which it had apparently also made its home.

Pippa is running directly towards the snake and I scream “NOOO!! Pippa! Back in the house!!” She skids to a stop, turns around and runs back in the house while Teddy —alarmed at the panicked tone of my voice—bolts past the snake and around to the side of the house near the cactus patch and the palo verde tree. I run to the kitchen door of the house and close it to keep Pippa inside. Patty screams from the car, “what’s wrong?!?” I yell, “The snake! It came back!” I tell her to pull the car closer so that I can benefit from the brightness of the headlights and on autopilot reach for the closest brick, and hurl it at the snake. A direct hit. I find another larger rock and aim it with all my force. And then another. And another. Its head has been crushed.

Feeling bad about the dead snake

It takes a good hour before the adrenaline to ebb. It took several minutes to get Teddy to come back into the house. He is freaked out as he is a very sensitive dog. I am imagining dozens of rattlesnakes under every bush and stone, and am having second thoughts about this desert house thing.  I am of course being a city slicker in a complete state of panic (not for me so much as for the dogs) and this is the first rattlesnake I’ve come into this sort of contact with, and I had killed it. I have mixed feelings about this as I do not like taking the live of another creature, but when it comes to our safety, I don’t know that I can say I wouldn’t do it again.

I have however learned a lot about snakes since then, and know that half a mile to a snake is basically the equivalent of down the street to you or me. I have learned that there are calmer and saner ways of capturing a rattlesnake using tongs or a length of PVC and some nylon rope, and that you can relocate them safely, but you need to go several miles away if you don’t want them coming back.

We ended up buying the house the following January of 2014. Beginning that March, we started a top-to-bottom remodel of the place  and we managed to get everything done by September. We go out as often as we can, and have been renting it out on AIRbnb. We have never seen another rattlesnake since that one, and now that there is a steady flow of people coming in and out (with all of their smells and noises), it’s not too likely that a snake will be calling our place home. Given the choice, there preference is to stay as far away from humans as they can.

* * * *

More pictures of the Rancho are available on Facebook.

Posted in Personal Ramblings.

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The Best Films of 2014 – My 2015 List of Favorites

As I write this, a disclaimer that there are a few films that I have not yet seen that I expect might well bump a couple of titles from this list had I seen them in time. Because I’ve not yet seen Interstellar, The Imitation Game or Gone Girl, I have no opinion and cannot include them as part of my annual top-ten list. Additionally, I have not included any documentary films which I defaulted to last year as I felt that last years’ docs largely outweighed the overall quality of the feature length films. This year, I’ve created two separate best-of lists – this one and my Favorite Documentaries of 2014.

For the record, I am not with the pack regarding The Grand Budapest Hotel. I think it’s the best thing that Wes Anderson has done in (over) a decade, was a visual delight, but still suffered from his trademark self-aware/self-congratulatory preciousness that has been my issue with his work for much of his career. Throw all the eggs you want: I am impervious.

So with that said, this is my list of favorite films (so far) from 2014 from numero uno to numero diez:

Sound City

#1 –Boyhood

Already intrigued by the concept of a film being shot over a dozen years using the same actors throughout as they age over those dozen years, and equally already a fan of Richard Linklater’s work in general, I was very keen to see Boyhood. What I expected might be little more than a curious experiment in film making turned out to be a magnificent—albeit understated—piece of work that speaks so poignantly about the simple struggles of life, that the film often felt more like a window into these people’s lives than a “movie.”

There is such simple and honest purity to the story and to the character’s lives that Boyhood delivers a film that speaks with a truth that is so often missing in narrative film. There is a texture and rhythm to Boyhood that just feels …real. It is intimate and delicate, and ultimately is a triumphant, almost zen-like study in character. The passage of time is seamless and when the film was over, I felt grateful to have been allowed the chance to get to know these people. My favorite film of 2014.

#2 – Birdman (or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance)

I believe that Birdman will likely win the Oscar for best film, and although my personal choice would still be Boyhood, Birdman—while flawed—is a super fun ride, delivering a remarkable acting  performance from the film’s star,  Michael Keaton.

Ever since his directorial debut with Amores Perros, Alejandro González Iñárritu has consistently delivered thoughtful, powerful and distinctive films (21 Grams, Babel, Biutiful). Birdman is a stylistic tour-de-force, unlike anything you’ve ever seen, although its impact on me was not dissimilar to the first time I watched the similarly unique Brazil. Keaton plays a largely washed up actor whose glory days were playing a superhero character, BatBirdman. Wanting to be taken seriously, he risks everything on a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.

Throughout, there is a blurry lack of definition between reality and what we think might be hallucination. Keaton’s character is slowly crumbling under the weight of the project, and is largely at odds with his foil played by Ed Norton, his daughter played by Emma Stone and his girlfriend of three years played by Andrea Riseborough. As the film progresses, thing slowly spin further and further out of control, with Keaton barely hanging on as everything descends upon him.

I genuinely hope that Birdman wins the prize for best Cinematography for this stunning work by Emmanuel Lubezki whose previous achievements include Sleep Hollow, Y Tu Mamá También, Children of Men, The Tree of Life and Gravity. The film feels like a continual tracking shot, and some of the close-ups are so intimate that we feel as if we are intruders. Birdman is unsettling and manic at times, but equally edgy and dazzling. By the end of the film we are not left 100% certain as to where reality ends and imagination begins. I’m not sure if I found that satisfying or annoying. Perhaps a little of both.

#3 – Still Alice

There is no way that the Academy can ignore Julianne Moore on this one. She will win for best actress and she should. Still Alice is without any doubt the most heart-wrenching film of the year, with Moore playing a celebrated and accomplished academic who has been diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease. We are carried along her tumultuous and frightening journey as the disease progressively takes her further and further away from her memories and her sense of herself. She records a video to her future self with instructions as what to do in the event that she reaches a certain point of disorientation.

While Still Alice is often emotionally difficult, it is also deeply sympathetic and indelibly honest. This is arguably the strongest single performance of the year, one that ultimately casts a shadow on the rest of the film’s ensemble. If you’re feeling fragile, watch it another time.

#4 – Whiplash

I enjoyed this film immensely, though I doubt that I’ll be compelled to watch it a second time. A fascinating look into the world of competition ensemble jazz, Whiplash is a film that pits ambition and drive against the ruthless desire to win. The main character Andres (played by Miles Teller) is a talented young drummer wanting to be the best that there is, and his way to that goal is through the top band-leader Terence Fletcher (played by J.K. Simmons) in the prestigious music academy that Andrew is attending. Fletcher’s reputation as an iron-fisted tyrant precedes him, a reputation that does not even come close  to the lengths that he is willing to crush the spirits of his students in his pursuit of perfection.

I have little doubt that J.K. Simmons will win the prize for best supporting actor, as his performance is brutal and ferocious. I don’t know that a better portrayal of abuse of power has ever been committed to film as Whiplash succeeds in doing. It can be difficult to watch at times, but in the end, it is an uplifting triumph of the will after a physical and emotional game of cat and mouse.

#5 – Under the Skin

Sleeper of the year? It sure seemed like it. Or maybe Under the Skin is just too heady and weird for most American audiences to fully appreciate. Jonathan Glazer first made big screen waves with his 2000 full-length debut, Sexy Beast with Sir Ben Kingsley. I suppose Under the Skin is a science fiction film, but to try to compartmentalize it into an easy genre is to dismiss and diminish it. The central character of the film, played by the always stunning and alluring Scarlett Johansson, is some sort of alien life form (though we never get to understand anything about where she’s from or what her purpose is) who drives around Glasgow picking up men who appear to have few if any connections with people who might notice their disappearance. What she does to them is best seen rather than be explained, but for lack of a better word, can best be described as “harvesting.”

There is an emotional air to the film that—along with the genius special effects—might bring to mind aspects of Chris Cunningham’s work and could bring to mind elements of Spike Jonze’s Her from 2013. Under the Skin is perhaps the most difficult film to try to describe and capture in a brief review as it certainly the most uniquely moody film reviewed here.

#6 – The Lego Movie

Everybody’s already read it, and most that I’ve spoken to are in full agreement: Second only to Ava DuVernay’s snub in not receiving a nomination for her direction of Selma, The Lego Movie not being nominated for best animated feature was one of the biggest snubs this year, and a rather perplexing one to say the least.

There’s not a lot to say other than this film was totally ingenious, funny and massively entertaining, the story was clever and smart, the in-jokes were a mile-a-minutes, and the animation completely top-notch. It’s a playful ride for kids of all ages, one that never once feels once like it’s pitching a product. It’s hard to win a prize that you’re not even nominated for. Innovative, imaginative, refreshing and fun.

#7 – Only Lovers Left Alive

Perhaps it is because of my ‘80s obsession with Bauhaus that I’ve always felt that vampire movies should be somehow connected to the underground of popular culture, and as a result belong to the world of music and art more than any of the other ‘monster’ movie genres, but in my mind the best vampire movies of my generation are very few and far between. Other than Nadja and the classic The Hunger, I don’t know that I’ve seen any other movies that struck the right balance or contained the right flavor (pun intended)… until now. It would make perfect sense that Jim Jaramusch would be the right director to finally bring us a vampire film worthy of being included along with those other two.

Only Lovers Left Alive is the perfect parable of two aging punk/goth rockers (Adam and Eve) in love across an ocean (seemingly) for eternity. I was able to identify with the entire reality that Lovers manages to create as a rumination on my history in punk and grunge during the heyday of the Seattle scene. Looking back at those days while watching the new crop entering and creating a new scene, I invariably wonder how and if my contribution has any actual relevance to the kids of today. Romantic and sensuous, Only Lovers Left Alive is strangely contemporary while managing to ring a nostalgic bell for decades and days gone past. Dark and delicious.

#8 – Chef

This one came and went with a flurry of adoration and then sadly fell off the face of the planet. Chef was for me, the feel-good movie of the year, and it’s always nice to watch something during the year that fills you with warmth and sweetness, even if it does feel mildly manipulative at times. Chef tells the story of a hot shot Los Angeles chef who unwittingly gets into a Twitter war with one of the leading food reviewers in the city. He ends up quitting the restaurant, and buys a food truck in Miami. With the help of his chef-buddy played by John Leguizamo, and his son—with whom he is semi disconnected with—they drive across country stopping in cities along the way, creating a social media foodie sensation during their travels. Chef is a road movie, is a buddy movie, is the perfect father-son movie and is ultimately one of those “finding-yourself” movies that you cannot help but to enjoy if you don’t mind just taking the ride and enjoying the trip.

#9 – The Theory of Everything

This well-crafted, well-acted movie about Stephen Hawking has Oscar written all over it. A biopic of a famous person as they’re falling prey to a debilitating diagnosis (in this case, ALS); It is ostensibly a love story against impossible odds; it is reasonably slick; Eddie Redmayne’s performance, particularly his physical transformation is quite remarkable – so much so, that you find yourself thinking that he is indeed Hawking as opposed to an actor playing a role.

The Academy has a history of celebrating these kinds of performance (My Left Foot, A Beautiful Mind, Ray), but somehow, while I thoroughly enjoyed The Theory of Everything while watching it, I found it rather tame. I never felt the chemistry between Hawking and his wife, I never fully recognized the pure brilliance of Hawking’s genius mind in the film, and in the end the movie cannot seem to decide if it wants to be a biopic or a love story. It does a good job at both, but a stellar job at neither. Rent it.

#10 – Locke

A rather understated but pleasant surprise. Locke is for the most part a one-man performance by Tom Hardy who during the duration of a trip in his car from Birmingham to London, we watch everything in his life slowly unravel between his wife when he admits that he is making the trip to a woman who he had impregnated during a one night stand nine months earlier as she’s in the hospital going in labor. His intents have nothing to with love, but instead, because he feels it’s the “right thing to do.” The films is claustrophobic, not just because is takes place inside of a car, but on an emotional level as you palpably feel the struggle and tension of everything Locke is dealing with through a series of conversations with his wife, his children, the foreman at his work, and the woman who he’s going to be with for the birth of her/their child. It is a compelling performance, surprisingly layered and tautly on-edge for the full hour and a half.

For last year’s picks, check out The Best Documentaries of 2013 – My 2014 List of Favorites

For the year before, check out The Best Films of 2012 – My 2013 List of Favorites

Posted in Movies.

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Killing Joke – and How to Get (Almost) Evicted

If ever there was a record that begs to be played at maximum volume, it’s gotta be the debut release from Killing Joke. I have no recollection of exactly when I first discovered this magnificent piece o’ wax, but once I did, it became a staple of my early career as a young rocker boy.

Another “perfect” record, ‘Killing Joke’ is incendiary, brutal and raw. Cold sweat, youthful angst and anger, the perfect soundtrack to a primal scream.

Killing Joke s/t

Back when I first bonded with their amazing debut full-length, I was living in a side-by-side duplex on 15th Ave. on South Capitol Hill in Seattle, with my aging landlord living in the other half.  She was a woman in her late ’60s. It would have been 1984, because Meagan and I had broken up, but I was still living in the duplex – I lived there for over seven years – not bad for a laddie in his early 20s.

My old pal, Tom Davis was over very early one morning (in recalling this story my thinking is that he was probably there from the night before and we had stayed up all night, something I can hardly fathom any more). So at some point, for some unknown reason and utter lack of logic or rationality, we dropped the needle on the record and immediately cranked it, as the opening song ‘Requiem,’ really does need to be rattling the glass out of the windows at five in the morning to be fully appreciated. By the time ‘Wardance’ was tearing its way through the airspace of my apartment, the two of us were thrashing around the living room in utter abandon, headbanging and careening off of each other and the walls of the room.
Daniel House and Tom V. Davis a few years before - in 1980

Then we both realized that there was a rather insistent banging coming from my front door, and in unison, we both suddenly realized the larger scope of our situation at that moment. I opened the door, not thinking that perhaps the volume should first be turned down. There stood my landlord dressed in a plus-sized moomoo and bathroom slippers. And she was angry. I immediately had Tom run back to turn down the volume and attempted what must have been one of the most awkward excuses for an apology ever made by a clueless young man in his 20s. I had no explanation to give her. I had been so in the moment, that anything outside of the four walls of my living space did not exist.

I was sure I was going to be evicted, and to this day, I’m not quite sure how I managed to talk my way out of that one.

Now I pay a mortgage instead of rent, so I can play Killing Joke as loud as I like. The benefits of being a grown-up.

Released August 1980

Posted in Music, Personal Ramblings.

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From Guemes to Berkeley – A Reflection on Father’s Day

When my father announced in 1976—rather abruptly—that we were going to be moving away from Guemes Island, and back to the Bay Area, it was as if an anvil had been dropped on my teenage head. I had just finished 10th grade, and was indeed the happiest I’d been in years.

Since first living with my father in San Francisco at the age of eight, we had moved a total of five times over the course of under seven years. Guemes was the sixth place we’d lived, the third in Washington State. It was also the first place in all these years where my life  finally had some stability and where I had  managed to establish several genuine and meaningful friendships.  At the core were my best friends, Tom and Ben. The three of us were a weird sort of nexus to a close-knit group of us who lived on Guemes Island, a quick five minute ferry boat ride from the Anacortes mainland.  We were largely inseparable, and eventually, it would be because of that friendship that I was drawn to Seattle where I lived from 1981 to 2003.

Tom, Daniel, Grama Leota and Ben

On Guemes, I had gotten bit by the acting bug, and—only weeks before— had been offered the roll of Nick Burns in the local Anacortes ACT production of the Herb Gardner play, A Thousand Clowns. It was—and still is today—among my favorite films. At that time, I had not been aware that it had originally been a play. This was to be the beginning of an entirely new chapter in my life, one that would have doubtlessly taken my life in an entirely different direction had we stayed on Guemes. We moved before the play even started rehearsals, and I never pursued acting again.

So we moved away and I was crushed and crestfallen. More so, I was furious with my alcoholic father, who was once again uprooting me, but this time had been the first time I had known close friendship and stability in my life since living under his charge, so being a young teen, this was particularly difficult. And so in moving, I drew a firm boundary that I was done living with him. Instead, I would move back in with my mother in Berkeley, a decision that proved considerably less stable and structured than my life had been during those previous seven years with him.

My mother was living in a one-bedroom mother-in-law in West Berkeley with a boyfriend who she met through the methadone clinic they both frequented. Both were receiving some sort of Federal assistance, and neither was particularly capable of functioning in the normal social context of an urban environment. They spent the majority of their time parked side-by-side on their bed, watching TV and smoking cigarettes. My mom’s boyfriend would frequently fall asleep with a lit cigarette in his hand. I was always imagining them engulfed in flame some evening after he fell asleep and caught the bed on fire, and me crawling through a window just barely escaping alive. Nice flair for drama in my imaginary world. Eventually, he did manage to ignite the mattress, but it was a slow smolder, and the mattress was dragged out to the sidewalk where it burned for the next two days.

My “bedroom” was intended as a pass-through living room. You had to walk from my mom’s bedroom through my room to get to the kitchen, and you had to pass through the kitchen to get to the bathroom.  Those four rooms and a large utility closet was the entirety of the place.  The time I spent there was minimal, as I’d go to Berkeley High in the morning and then to my job at the U.C. Berkeley bookstore directly afterwards.  At the end of my shift, I would invariably hit one of several record stores and dig through their used bins, buying records twice a week on average. Occasionally, I’d take the bus home, but the bulk of the time, I walked the two and a half miles back to the emotionally depressing haze of my new environs. There I would read, listen to records on headphones, watch occasional TV and work on my homework until I went to bed. The next day was a repeat of the day before, and on weekends, outside of homework, I would get out as much as I could so as to minimize my time at my mom’s place.

Next to my mom’s mother-in law was a garage piled high with precariously balanced boxes full of clothes, books, old dishes, newspapers and magazines.  One box however was filled with a bunch of old records. I asked my mom if I could go through them and take any of the ones that interested me. She said it was fine. Many of the records were too thrashed to even consider, and most of them were by bands or artists that I was not familiar with or whose names I knew, but whose music I did not. There were classics from the Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Marvin Gaye, Lighting Hopkins, Horace Silver and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee. One record however jumped out, and that was Sir Douglas Quintet + 2 = Honkey Blues, the first official studio recordings by Sir Douglas. The artwork pulled me in, and upon slapping it on the turntable, what I discovered an AMAZING record that slipped effortlessly between straight-up rock, tex-mex, jazz and even noisy passages that would seem out of place anywhere else. It is still a long standing favorite of mine, almost four decades later. These records—in addition to the ones I was buying regularly on my own—were my solace and a place where my mind and thoughts could soar. They were indeed the one place where I could ground myself in what felt like a safe refuge, stuck in a house with a couple of methadone zombies.

It took close to two years before I was finally able to save enough to get out and into my own apartment. I was still in high school in my senior year, and it was still several months before graduation, but I found a simple one-bedroom in a fourplex on Derby Street, just below Martin Luther King Jr. Way, a quick walk to and from Berkeley High.

It was a couple of years more before I moved to Seattle to re-unite with Tom and Ben, but had my father never moved, I imagine that my life might have ended up very differently. Theater would have undoubtedly forged a different path in my life, and I wonder if I ever would have gotten into music the way that I did. It’s near impossible to consider my life without the history I’ve had in Seattle during the music scene in the ‘80s and ‘90s. My nine years of playing in bands—the most notable of which was as a co-founder, bass-player and song-writer for Skin Yard—and my fifteen or so years releasing music by other bands via C/Z Records. It is such a critical piece of my identity, one that I am genuinely grateful for.

I am not really much of a believer of destiny, however I am acutely aware how radically one decision at a fork in our life can completely transform the direction that we end up taking. The curious thing is that none of us have any way of gauging how things might have been different; we just know that they would have been – for better or for worse. I have no qualms about the way things turned out. I experienced more than my share of chaos and adversity under the barely-watchful eyes of my parents, but these were the experiences that helped to make me who I am today and that gave me the abnormal perseverance that have helped me to achieve the things I have thus far.

My father and I don’t have any communication anymore, but on this Father’s Day, I am reflecting on the seven short years that we spent together.  Sadly, he is slowing down in his life with a cognitive decline due to white matter disease, a disease I had not heard of before. I hope he is still able to reflect on his early days and on all the meaningful contributions and accomplishments that he’s made in his life.

Shooting guns at Salmon Creek - photo by Chuck Gould

My father has written and had published a book or two and has created a life in Petrolia, CA. that is a template for living self-sufficiently that I still find extraordinary. His time in the Diggers in the late 60’s has always given me a sense of pride, and his unrelenting commitment to finding better ways of living as part of our world have helped to inform my Pantheist notions of our place on this planet. His commitment to the things that he felt were important in his life is perhaps the most important thing that I am indebted to him for, and is certainly part of why I always try to live my life guided by my principles and driven by my passions.

Father and Son

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