Saturday, January 16, 2016

Song Interpretation: Life On Mars?

If Roy Orbison and Bruce Springsteen sing for the lonely, then surely David Bowie sings for the alienated. The alienated are not only lonely, but feel uncomfortable wherever they are. Their quiet discomfort is not universal, obviously, but everyone knows at least one person that just doesn't feel like they fit in, even when everyone else thinks they do. Even in a crowd of friends having a party, I feel alienated and sometimes just have to leave to feel better. If you have never felt this way, then there is not much I can say to explain it to you, but it is obvious to me that Bowie has felt this way. He speaks to us, not just to the closeted gays, transvestites and otherwise tormented souls, but the seemingly average Joe like myself. I am sure you have a Bowie fan in your life. Chances are, there was a time in their life that they were dying inside. A few years ago, I was in a room where a Unitarian Universalist minister asked us all to think of someone who inspired us in their childhood. Of the eight people or so in the room, I was the only person that could not come up someone that he knew. While other people mentioned favorite aunts, neighborhood mentors or teachers, all I could come up with is writers and musicians. It may sound trite, but if not for the likes of Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Walt Whitman and Kurt Vonnegut ... I don't think I would have survived my childhood. Bowie, a true Renaissance Man, reached across the ocean, across the cosmos, and touched me in a way that those closest to me could not even comprehend. This is the power of art, is it not?

Alienation is nothing new in art. I don't know if Bowie is the first person to actually use an alien to personify it. His most famous album from 1972, The Rise and Fall  of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars, tells a vague story of a bi-sexual alien rock star coming to Earth to inform us that we have five years left before we destroy ourselves. The song "Life on Mars?" from the previous album from 1971, Hunk Dory, could be seen as a setup to Ziggy. It tells a story of a "girl with mousy hair" who just got into an argument with her parents and wanders into a movie theater. She is completely disconnected to what she sees on the screen, "sailors fighting in a dance," "cavemen," and "lawmen beating up the wrong guy" ...she could spit on them. It is the early 1970's and quasi-revolutionary pretensions are sweeping through Western Europe, "from Ibiza to Norfolks Broads." Capitalism and empty patriotism has gone awry. "Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow" and "Lennon's on a sale again" (or is it Lenin?). Is she disappointed in the film or in reality? She asks "Is there life on Mars?" because surely, life sucks here. Like most of his early work, the imagery suggests that life is futile. How can be anything but futile when we are so small and insignificant?

Also, the Rick Wakeman piano is so haunting.  What a perfect song!

Like many people, I awoke on Monday with the news of Bowie's death crying out of my radio. I spent most of the day listening to him. I did my share of whimpering and singing that day. My wife bought me some maple cookies to cheer me up. My Facebook feed is still bleeding Bowie so I know I am not alone in this. I usually don't consider myself a lucky man, but I do in this case consider myself lucky that I lived at the same time Bowie did. If not for him, I'd feel much more lonely.

by David Bowie

It's a God-awful small affair
To the girl with the mousy hair
But her mummy is yelling no
And her daddy has told her to go
But her friend is nowhere to be seen
Now she walks through her sunken dream
To the seat with the clearest view
And she's hooked to the silver screen
But the film is a saddening bore
For she's lived it ten times or more
She could spit in the eyes of fools
As they ask her to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?
It's on America's tortured brow
That Mickey Mouse has grown up a cow
Now the workers have struck for fame
'Cause Lennon's on sale again
See the mice in their million hordes
From Ibiza to the Norfolk Broads
Rule Britannia is out of bounds
To my mother, my dog, and clowns
But the film is a saddening bore
'Cause I wrote it ten times or more
It's about to be writ again
As I ask you to focus on
Sailors fighting in the dance hall
Oh man look at those cavemen go
It's the freakiest show
Take a look at the lawman
Beating up the wrong guy
Oh man wonder if he'll ever know
He's in the best selling show
Is there life on Mars?

Friday, January 1, 2016

This Year's Picks: 2015

The past few years, on Facebook, I have published my list of picks of the year in various media categories. I spend a lot of time putting it together and I usually don't get any comments and very few likes, so I figured why not create a blog post where it can get even less attention.

Best book I read in 2015:
I did not read many books in 2015.   This is mostly because when we went to Paris, I decided to read a French classic.  Since I loved The Three Musketeers as a kid, I decided to read The Count of Monte Cristo.   I didn't realize what a tome it is. It is huge. I haven't finished it yet. Because of this, I haven't read many books. My favorite of the short list, was probably Ironweed by William Kennedy. I have mentioned before in this blog, that I love first person narratives. This narrative is of an alcoholic vagrant in Depression Era Albany, NY. His return to town is cluttered by his hallucinations which is confusing at first, but is very satisfying once you figure out what is going on.

Favorite new movie: It is difficult to pick my favorite movie of the year, mostly because I see so many. I am limiting my pick to movies I saw in the theater. For this I have to pick Spotlight. Growing up as a Catholic in the Boston area, this film really hit home for me. It is about the pedophile scandal in the Catholic church and how Boston Globe's Spotlight team of investigative journalists researched the story. The term "Based on a True Story" has become a joke these days. This film had the journalists involved in the film making to make sure it was accurate. It was more concentrated on investigative journalism rather than the crime they were researching which makes it easier to watch. It is probably the best film about investigative reporting, not just since All The President's Men, but ever. In an era where news organizations are getting leaner and leaner due the economic reality of the industry, this is an important film for everyone to see.

I'd like to point out that I did not see Trainwreck in the theater. If I had I might be picking it. I watched it at home which is too bad because a good comedy is the best in the theater among strangers. We'll see how it does at the Oscars which usually ignores comedies, even sophisticated comedies like this.

Favorite new TV show: If you like the show Louie but find it too dark and depressing, you might like Netflix's Master of One. Like Louis C. K.'s character, the main character in Master of One, Dev (portrayed by Aziz Ansari) is a single man living in New York looking for love. He is a struggling actor of Indian descent, also struggling with stereo-types in a comical tasteful way. Ansari is a joy and extremely positive. The show is very creative. One episode, called "Mornings," shows a year of pivotal mornings in his relationship with his new girl friend. There are a lot of great new television shows, this is my favorite. 

favorite quote: Bernie Sanders

Favorite new podcast : I am currently subscribed to too many Podcasts. I end up deleting a lot. I have discovered a lot of new good ones. Serial became the most popular podcast ever this year. I enjoyed but it wasn't my favorite. Some of my favorites are Pitch (about the science of music), Between the Liner Notes (about the music industry), Note To Self (technology), Waking Up with Sam Harris (atheist intellectual talk), Slate's Amicus with Dahlia Lithwick (Supreme Court) and NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour.

My favorite, though, is another Slate podcast called Whistlestop. This is by one of my favorite journalists, John Dickerson, who is a panelist on Slate's Political Gabfest and is now the moderator of CBS's Face the Nation. Whistlestop dissects American elections from the past. My wife and I listen to this one together. It is perfect for anyone that is politically active and likes history. They are only about a half hour long and are incredibly interesting and told in an entertaining, jocular manner. I hope John continues doing it since his schedule must be insane.

Best concert I attended:  If I had to pick the worst album of the year, I would have to pick Neil Young's new album The Monsanto Years. There are some good tunes on the album but overall, it is just a political tirade. It seems like he forgot how to write a song. He might have just copied and pasted a bunch of Internet comments and set them music to it. But his show at the Essex Fairground, here in Vermont, was spectacular. The show opened with Norah Jones' new band, Puss n' Boots, who was great as well. Vermont was the only US state that he had never played in, so now he's done all 50. He's welcome to come back because he was great.

I went to several other shows this year: The Great Lake Swimmers, The Decemberists, The Old Crow Medicine Show, Joshua Radin, Cary Brothers, Rachael Yamagata, Richard Shindell, Redbird, Max Creek, They Might Be Giants, Kat Wright and Peter Mulvey.  Not bad for someone who lives in Vermont.

Best album:  I only bought six albums this year that were new (released in 2015), those by Neil Young, The Decemberists, Alabama Shakes, Joshua Radin, Wilco and Brandi Carlile. (The Neil Young and Wilco album were free). I love them all other than the aforementioned Neil Young album. My favorite has to be The Decemberists' What a Terrible World, What a Beautiful World. They are one of my favorite newish bands. They put out concept albums which is a rarity these days. The album seems to be about personal conflict and the change you go through to made adjustments to an increasingly untenable world. The title of the album comes from one of the songs, "12/17/12," which is in response to President Obama's speech after the Sandy Hook shootings ... acknowledge the horror and be thankful for what you have going forward. Colin Meloy, the lead singer and principal songwriter, recently became a father so pathos over the state of world is all over this album.

Favorite new song: I have 190 mp3 files (songs) on my hard drive that were released this year.  iTunes says that it would take me 11 hours and 57 minutes to listen to them straight through. I have a lot of favorites, the list is below. If I have to pick one, I would pick "Mantra" by Keller Williams which is a contemporary bluegrass song about having difficulties meditating because your mind really wanders.

Here is the rest:
"Escape" by Blackalicious
"Atoms Never Die" by Adam Levy
"Let's All Stay in Tonight" by Blimp Rock
"Pedestrian At Best" by Courtney Bartnett
"Lake Song" by the Decemberists
"Old Friend" by Joshua Radin
"Pine Away" by Martin Sexton
"Getting Ready to Get Down" by Josh Ritter
"The Early Days" by Old Man Luedecke
"Don't Want To Fight No More" Alabama Shakes
"Heroes and Songs" by Brandi Carlile
"Winning Streak" by Glen Hansard
"Downtown" by Whitehorse

About half of these performers, I have never heard of until this year.

Favorite discovery of the year:  I got the Tile for Xmas. This is a little tile you can attach to your keys or put in your wallet, that beeps if you lose it. It is connected to your smart phone.  How cool!

Favorite New App: 
When we go into Burlington, parking is difficult sometimes. Since the city has implemented the ParkMobile app on their parking meters, it has gotten a lot easier. You park, type your zone (which is on the meter) on your phone, specify the time and it pays via Paypal etc. It takes about a second to do. No searching for change. 
Best trip:  I took a few trips this year. I went to Alabama and Kentucky in February. I had a business trip to New York, a Red Sox trip to Boston, a short trip to Canada and a Cubs trip to Chicago. Need I say that my trip to Paris was my best trip. Since I already blogged about it, do I need to say more?