Goodbye 2009

December 31, 2009 at 2:32 pm (Uncategorized)

The annual round-up of things that made life bearable this year.  (See also the monthly music notes)

1. New York

Making the list for the second year in a row. I made my annual trip to New York in November, but I’ve already blogged that one (read about it here). I’ll just say that New York always feels like an old friend, but one who still has so many secrets. Familiar, but intriguing enough to keep you interested.

2. Orhan Pamuk – Snow

Of course I knew about Pamuk, but I had never read any of his works before Snow.  A chance mention of this book by a friend led me to it. It’s the beautifully written story of KA, a poet who returns to his home town to Turkey after years of political exile in Germany. When he left it was leftist movements that threatened the state; now it’s  the Islamist movement. Under the cover of a an immense snowstorm, Ka confronts his own past, the new reality,  and rediscovers his own poetic talents. A massive accomplishment; a massive talent.  

3. Mutant Enemy 

I’m going to write something about Dollhouse at the conclusion of the show in January. However, I’ll just add here that the talents of Mr. Whedon and his collaborators continue to sustain my belief that TV is worth watching. While Dollhouse didn’t grab me at first, it became on of those shows you look forward to. I’m not sure if it will age as well as Buffy, but I truly came to love the characters. Every once in a while, I choose to re watch a season of Buffy or Angel. This holiday, I tore through Season IV. Now I know that’s not a favourite for many. The move to college, the loss of Angel and then Oz and the introduction of Riley were not the most popular (and I never really took to Tara), but Hush, Something Blue, Superstar and Restless were brilliant. And boy, I never noticed all the clues Dawn was coming before. 

The Dr. Horrible DVD and Dr. Horrible one-shot comic also filled a void.

But please Joss, not Fox next time. It breaks our hearts, it really does.

4. The Velvet Underground

The cover of last month’s Uncut features the Velvets, and has quite a fine CD with artists inspired by the band: the Black Angels, the Feelies, Hush Arbors, Loop and many others.

After I read the article, I decided to plough though the Peel Slowly and See box set. It’s not the place to begin listening to the Velvets (especially the  first CD of demos), but it really allows you to see just how special they were, and how much they changed over their four album existence (no, I don’t count Squeeze). So many bands and genres remain indebted to this band, and yet so few know. Which leads logically to… 

5. Dean Wareham et al

The title is very unfair since it ignores Wareham’s collaborators over the years in Galaxie 500, Luna and with Britta Phillips.  Yet I’ve spent a great deal of the year with his work. Beginning with his autobiography Black Postcards to Galaxie’s Peel Sessions, through Luna’s Penthouse, and then Dean &  Britta’s Back Numbers, the words have been quieter, slower.

You can also check out A Heartful of Wishes, a site dedicated to Galaxie 500 and Luna.

6. Planetary

Warren Ellis and John Cassidy’s story of the “Archeologists of the Impossible.” (How could you not love that?) Janika Wagner, the Drummer and Elijah Snow make up the team which is dedicated to …well, it’s a bit of a mystery innit? Suffice to say, (and this doesn’t suffice), if the characters of Fringe and the X-Files had super powers, it might be a bit like this. The series started in the 1998, but was suspended a few years later. Restarted in October. If you like conspiracy stuff, and even if you don’t, it’s well worth it. Pretty addictive. It’ll also lead you into Ellis’ Storm Watch and The Authority.

PS. I just came across Ellis’ novel Crookedly Little Vein, but no thoughts on that yet.

7. Curry and Roti

My favourite local restaurant. You like Caribbean food? Then this is for you. A few kilometres from me is Curry and Roti. I don’t know if it’s the best roti place in the city, but it’s very good indeed. Whenever I’m down, this is comfort food for the soul.

8. Amusement parks

Never went to them as a kid. Didn’t like roller-coasters. Much preferred arcades. This year, I’ve been to Disney World, Sea World and Canada’s Wonderland. And more surprisingly, I had a good time at all of them. Perhaps, it was my kids that made the difference. You think? After we got off the first ride at Disney World, my five-year old son turned to me and said, “Dad, this is the best day of my life.” It’s hard to forget something like that.

9. Star Trek 

I watched two Star Trek movies this year: Nemesis, the swan song for the Next Generation series and the death of Data; and the JJ Arbrams reboot. I was a Trek fan as a kid, and Abrams’ story neatly fits into that mold: Heroic, dumb fun. (With plenty of nods to the old series).  

10. Atonement

I didn’t read the novel, but the movie haunted me. I know it came out in 2007, but I didn’t see it till this year. the story of how a small lie can have far-reaching consequences, and how a person makes amends.Oustanding performances from Kira Knightly and , as well as Vanessa Redgrave, and an amazing un-Hollywood ending. I talked about this to anyone who would listen for months afterwards.

11. Pork pie Hat

I’m beginning to collect hats – not baseball caps. They aren’t hats. A hat has a brim  not a peak. So, after hemming and hawing over the price, I finally bought  a pork pie hat from Toronto hat seller Big it Up a few weeks ago.  I know I’m too old to be cool now, but I love this hat. I’ve had positive comments every time I’ve worn it.  If you’ve no idea, click here.

12. New Music

I started taking music seriously when I was about 13. It was the summer of 1977. I was a little too young for punk, but I tried to make up for lost ground. Admittedly, my tastes were a little on the narrow side at first, but I learnt. (I still remember the expression on my dad’s face when I brought home a Hank Williams album).  Yet, as we settle into middle age, there a bit of a tendency to revert to the music of our youth. How else to explain Classic rock radio  – an extremely narrow slice of artists from the 1960s and 70s. I often listen to the Toronto classic rock station to see if I can hear something new – it’s very rare. So, I’m pleased to finds myself in the position of still buying new records by new artists like The XX, the Vivian Girls, Hush Arbors, Best Coast, Box Elders and many more some of whom don’t even have Wikipedia pages yet!).  There’s just something magical about discovering a new artist, and remembering what attracted you to music in the first place. I’m reading Nick Hornby’s new novel Juliet, Naked at the moment. I’m certainly not a Tucker Crowe fan, but I do understand.

Vive la rock!

13. Live Music

Hey, wasn’t live music supposed to die out? Wasn’t digital sound and the internet supposed to remove al; that? No, didn’t think so. I got out of the habit for a while, but this year, I went and saw vital live music again. Primal Scream, The Kills, the Horrors, Jay Reatard, the Decemberists, the Heartless Bastards, and Roky Erickson.

There’s something magical about being in a club surrounded by sound. It’s noisy, it’s sweaty, and its real. The Cribs are playing the Phoenix on January 15th.

14. Bill Willingham

I first saw Billingham’s stuff when he wrote Ironwood, an, ahem, erotic sword and sorcery comic published in the 1990s. Then came Fables, Jack of Fables , and now a novel Peter and Max (this one arrived last week for me, but I haven’t gotten to it yet). Willingham is also writing the Angel comic for IDW now. Who would have thought it?

15. The City Workers Strike in Toronto

City workers were off the job in Toronto this summer. That meant no garbage pickup. A massive inconvenience. The main issue in the strike was over bankable sick days. The city wanted to buy these out. After six weeks, the union gave up these sick days for new workers, and made a deal to allow the city to buy them out from existing workers.  It was a classic union controlled strike, yet there was something exciting about picket lines in the city again. True, there were other actions in other places (Chicago Doors and Windows springs to mind), but  this was here, in Toronto. It’s with struggle that possibilities begin.

16 Edwards Gardens

There’s a park near my home. It has a little stream running through it. There are ducks and geese. It’s quiet. It’s a retreat. A cup of coffee, and it’s perfect.

17. Marmite

You know it, you may not love it. I’m not sure if anyone who wasn’t raised on it can appreciate it. While North American children grew up on PB&J sandwiches, for me it was cheese and marmite. Or on toast. Or as a hot drink alternative to Bovril. You can buy t-shirts at the fan site.   


18. Max the cat

We’ve almost adopted a local cat.  I say almost because my wife has an allergy to cats so we can’t officially adopt him, but unofficially… Max belongs to a neighbour, and one day I made the mistake of giving him a saucer of milk. Now he’s around almost every day for milk or TLC. I don’t think he cares which. It brightens my day though.

19. Body Worlds

Four years ago, the Body Worlds exhibit was at the Ontario Science Centre. Week after week, I told myself, I’ll go. Never did. When it came back, I was determined not to miss it. Went this week. It’s stunning. I can think of few things which can made me smile, cry, and have my mouth hang open in just the sheer complexity of the human body.  I’m an organ donor, but I don’t think I can quite muster the strength to donate my whole body; however, I’m sure impressed many people did. If it comes to your town, go see it.

20. Plato

To be sure, I’m not a big fan of Plato. I read The Republic and some of the dialogues when I was in school, but still. However, on one of the walls at the Body Worlds exhibit, there was this lovely quotation, which is a pretty good way to end the year.

Those who wish to sing, always find a song.

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Another Holiday Down

December 27, 2009 at 1:40 am (Uncategorized)

And so another Holiday Season begins to fade.  Christmas is done, and the Boxing day madness is over (I can’t do the sales anymore – I just don’t have the stamina). Oh sure, there’s New Year’s (the most overrated holiday of the year in my opinion), but that specialness is fading.

When I was a kid,  I loved Christmas. I absolutely believed in Father Christmas. My parents would tell me that if I wasn’t asleep when he came, he wouldn’t leave presents. This of course had the opposite effect they intended: now I was even more tense about sleep, making it doubly difficult to drift off. But eventually, it would happen, and then came the morning.  There were few things more exciting than waking up at some unearthly hour  on December 25 and seeing gifts. My sister and I had a pact, so that whoever woke first would wake the other immediately. Then came the long wait until my parents, usually my mother, rose, and we still had to wash up, get dressed and have breakfast before the serious business of opening presents began.  

My family were nominally Christians, but it was never a religious celebration for us.  After being baptized, I don’t think my family ever took me to church, so when I abandoned religion at the beginning of my teens, Christmas didn’t really change much.  Gradually though, it became less significant

The big change for me was when I began dating the woman who is now my wife. She was not raised in a Christian household, and hadn’t ever really celebrated Christmas at all. Introducing her to the notion of the big party and gift-giving made it all fun again. But that too faded. Then of course came the kids, which made everything exciting again. My son’s favourite gift this year was a Pokemon book, and my daughter liked a stylish bag I found for her. It’s different from when I was a kid, but some of the rituals and traditions are still fun.

Christmas is a cultural phenomenon beyond Christianity. You may be a Christian, or you may not be a Christian; you may celebrate Christmas, or , you may not celebrate Christmas, but you can’t avoid it. It the same way that Shakespeare or the Bible informs our linguistic sensibilities, Christmas is a part too. 

Now, if you want to proclaim Jesus is the reason for the Season, that’s OK with me. (although much of the Christmas story is stolen wholesale out of other cultures or spun out of the air – so don’t proclaim it too close to me.   Mark is the best Gospel to read because it’s the first, and it doesn’t even make mention of the baby in the manger nonsense) 

Nevertheless, it’s  always amusing to hear the culture warriors proclaim once again the war on Christmas is in full effect. I work in a multi-cultural immigrant environment where probably the majority of people are not Christians. They all wish me “Merry Christmas,” although I’m not sure whether it’s because they think I’m a Christian, or they just think it’s the thing to say. In conversation though, no one has ever expressed anger at being wished a Merry Christmas. (I wish everyone happy Eids, Tamil New Years, Dewalis etc, and no one minds that either)

I was watching a call-in TV show the other day where a caller who worked as a receptionist, told a story of having wished a visitor a merry Christmas and received the curt reply that it wasn’t his holiday. Was this an oppressed man subjugated beneath the smothering Christian culture? Or was  he just an oaf who couldn’t respond politely to another human being?

After all, isn’t Christmas a capitalist holiday…? (If you’re interested in some of the origins and cultural traditions associated with this holiday, you might check out Stephen Nissembaum’s The Battle For Christmas – highly recommended)

For my part, I prefer the story of the Christmas Truce as my favourite holiday story.


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Music Notes – December 2009

December 23, 2009 at 6:57 pm (Uncategorized)

The monthly round-up of fine audio things…

1. Penetration – The Best of…

It’s quite common to describe the Adverts as the great lost punk band: The band that should have, but somehow didn’t. I’m certainly willing to make that case for TV Smith and the lads, but it’s worth considering Pauline Murray and Penetration too. Murray had one of those great soaring punk voices, and was often compared to Siouxsue Sioux and Poly Styrene (a lazy comparison in my opinion since their voices aren’t really similar) . On their best song “Don’t Dictate”  it’s clear she was a major talent. This EMI ‘best of” is a bit lumpy,but when they shine, they really shine. Along with the hits, the collection includes a versions of Patti Smith’s ‘Free Money” and Buzzcocks’  ‘Nostalgia.” But in my opinion, it’s worth having for the four demos included. The rough versions are actually better than the polished product. Penetration reformed last year and released a single on Damaged Goods.

2. A Damaged Christmas Gift for You

Just in time for the holidays: A Damaged Goods Christmas record which not only contains great songs, it also mocks Phil Spector. Included on the album are treats like Billy Childish, Thee Headcoatees, TV Smith, Goldblade and Poly Styrene, Wat Tyler, Holly Golightly and more.  One caution, the Emusic version contains a mistake – they substitute ‘Santa Claus’ by Thee Heacoatees for another of their songs, “Come in my mouth.” Uh huh.

3. Nirvana – Live at the Reading Festival

Last month, I fretted about Nirvana product diluting the original greatness of the band. I stand by those remarks, but this release is no cause for concern. This CD/DVD recording is outstanding. It’s worth buying both (they’re handily available in one set). It’s easy to forget how great Nirvana were, and what they achieved (or rather how little). Yes, yes, they inspired a host of lesser bands, but every great band does. The set list is impeccable, the sound marvellous. It’s important.

4. The Avengers

What’s San Francisco 70s punk band The Avengers main claim to fame? They supported the Sex Pistols on their last show. True, they really should be remembered for their musical merits. There are a couple of Avengers CDs knocking around – mostly scattered singles coupled with demos and live songs. I got a copy of their only real album last week, but even that isn’t quite true. The CD features different versions of their singles (produced by Sex Pistol Steve Jones) and only a couple of live cuts. Crisp, powerful punk. available on lead singer Penelope Spieres’ web site.  

5. The Clash – Revolution Rock

I only saw the Clash once; in 1982 at the CNE in Toronto with Black Uhuru opening. Topper was already gone, but they played a great set. REvolution Rock is an odds and sods collection of live performances from the Clash’s career. Some pretty good footage, although putting in the video for Tommy Gun is a bit of a cheat. Not essential, but entertaining. (I prefer to watch the just play songs feature of Rude Boy.) Make sure you switch of the commentary function when you watch. The voice over grates in no time.

6. The Stone Roses – Live at the Blackpool Empress Ballroom

I mentioned this album a few months back, but I didn’t get around to watching the DVD until the past weekend. Along with half a dozen videos, the DVD features a recording of their August 12, 1989 show at the Blackpool Empress Ballroom. The concert dates to a couple of months after the release of The Stone Roses, and shows the band at their peak. Confident without being arrogant, it’s a fascinating moment in any band’s career.  

7. Best Coast – Make you Mine

A crunchy five song EP only available from Emusic. Song people have posted that Bethany Costentino’s sound is too affected, but to my ears it’s loud, exciting 4-track punk. Check out their myspace page for a listen.

8. Rage Against the Machine – Killing in the Name

Not sure what to make of RATM’s “Killing in the Name” being the UK’s much coveted number 1 Christmas single. An internet campaign led to this digital download being the number 1. I saw RATM with Cyprus Hill in 1993. At the climax of this song, Zack de la Rocha led the crowd in the refrain: “Fuck you! I won’t do what you tell me!” There’s something about a crowd of two thousand plus chanting, I won’t do what you tell me at the behest of a man on stage, that sets off the irony meter.

Me, I prefer Billy Mack’s “Christmas is all Around” from the movie Love Actually. The movie features every working British actor who isn’t part of the Harry Potter franchise (and quite a few who are). Mack is played by the marvellous Bill Nighy, who plays an aging rocker trying to make a comeback by recording a cover of the Trogg’s classic. As Mack explains to an initially bemused, then horrified DJ on air: it’s basically the old song but instead of love, we’ve put the word Christmas every fucking where. Please buy it so I can afford drugs and booze and get groupies again.

9.  Fucked Up – Do they Know it’s Christmas?’

Well, we all hated the song when it came out, but… Anyway, here’s Toronto’s Fucked Up with help from members of Vampire Weekend, and Yo la Tengo , as well as Bob Mould, Tegan and Sara and others. It’s to benefit charities raising awareness about the high rate of disappearances of aboriginal women in Canada. good cover; good cause.

10. Fatman

I know this shouldn’t be for commerical plugs, but in the spirit of the season,  I bought an i-Tube Carbon Edition II a few days ago. The sound is s00o lovely. MP3s often sound tinny with no bass, but the tubes do really boost the sound creating a much warmer noise to enjoy. Got mine at Bay-Bloor Radio in Toronto. Merry Christmas.

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Post #200 – Cottleston Pie

December 14, 2009 at 1:01 am (Uncategorized)

Well, it sure look a lot less time to reach post 200 than 100. The readership has gone up too. I suppose like everything else you find a few readers and if you post regularly they will keep coming.

So in honour of post 200, the holidays, or just a general good feeling, here’s something which may be of value to some people I know especially tomorrow (but on other days too)

Cottleston Pie

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.
Ask me a riddle and I reply
Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie,
A fish can’t whistle and neither can I.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston Pie.

Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston, Pie,
Why does a chicken? I don’t know why.
Ask me a riddle and I reply:
Cottleston, Cottleston, Cottleston, Pie.

 A.E. Milne

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Crisis in California – Update

December 10, 2009 at 3:17 am (Uncategorized)

I’ve been informed by the fine people at Mute that the IDP pamphlet I referred to here, is now online at their site.  Have a look.

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Television Generation – The New Season

December 7, 2009 at 4:27 pm (Uncategorized)

It’s no wonder the new TV season starts in the fall. It’s a bit like returning to school: you see old friends again, you make some new ones, and there are a couple of people you think you’ll like, but then you realize life is too short. The TV season is a lot like that. Now it seems that winter break has come early. A lot of shows are advertising “fall finales” – Shows like Glee and Smallville have disappeared from the schedule until at least February. Some will never return, but more about that later.

I was a little concerned about The Office this season. The first couple of episodes were disappointing. The jokes seem laboured and Steve Carroll’s Michael Scott was becoming tiresome. Maybe five seasons was enough I thought. I was even more troubled when I saw the hour-long special devoted to Jim and Pam’s wedding. Weddings are often a shark-jump, and the Jim and Pam storyline was never my favourite (birth are often shark jumpers too!). However, the episode was a return to form, and since then the show has delivered. While the show has never produced the squirm factor of the British original, last week’s episode “Scott’s Tots” where Michael promises an entire kindergarten class, he will pay their college tuition and then disappoints them was genuinely uncomfortable to watch.

I’m of two minds about Parks and Rec, a faux Office style show set in the parks and recreation department of a small town featuring Amy Poehler as a clueless bureaucrat. Admittedly Poehler is marvellous, but that isn’t always enough to carry the show.  Promising, but…

I have watched all the episodes of Modern Family though.  The show employs the same faux-documentary style as The Office and Parks and Rec, but it still seems like a fresh use of the genre. It’s an ensemble comedy featuring Ed O’Neill, the family patriarch remarried to a much younger Colombian woman who has an 11 year son. O’Neill has two children: a daughter with a clueless hipster doofus husband and three children. O’Neill also has a fussy gay son who, along with his partner, has just adopted a baby girl from Vietnam. If it sounds laboured and convoluted, it isn’t. But if you really want to appreciate how a good show can make you laugh, stay tuned for after Modern Family comes Cougar Town. A worse title I could not imagine (OK, maybe Milfville). It features Courtney Cox and Busy Phillips (from the sadly undervalued Freaks and Geeks). The title is the show. Absolutely appalling unfunny, and yet inexplicably a hit. I’m also a little amazed, but in a good way, that even  in its fourth season, 30 Rock still contains laugh out loud moments each week. (I apologize for the use of that cliché) 

In terms of other new shows, I watched the two-hour opening of Stargate: Universe. I saw the original Stargate movie all those years ago (my wife worked as second assistant editor for a couple of weeks), but never watched the TV series. What the hell, give it a go. The plot is familiar enough, a group of earth types, soldiers and civilians stranded on a mysterious spaceship designed by the ancients millions of light years from earth, trying to find a way home. A bit of Battlestar Galactica, a bit of Star trek Voyager, oh and Robert Carlyle  – OK, he’s the real reason I watched. He’s such a fine actor, that I’m having a little trouble buying him as the chief scientist.Still, even Carlyle wasn’t enough to keep me interested.

Smallville is an on again off again relationship. I watched the first few seasons. Then stopped because of the whole ‘Clark and Lana will they won’t they?’ subplot. Just too much to bear. I came back for James Masters as Brainiac. Then dropped out again. But, Cullum Blue as Zod? Yup. The thing I like most about the show is how they introduce elements of the DC continuity into the series.   

An old show a friend introduced me to is The Lost Room. Airing originally on the US Sci-Fi channel, the show is about a cop called Joe Miller who comes into possession of an object; a key that can open any lock and leads to a motel room. And then anywhere in the world. Miller’s daughter becomes lost in the room, and Miller searches for other objects to bring her back. In a world filled with murder, cultists and mysterious powerful objects, the tension is almost unbearable. On DVD  now.

I’ve plugged Glee in the September Music Notes, but it’s worth remembering. 

My beloved Dollhouse has been cancelled. Odd, given that the last few episodes have gotten better and better. I’ll admit, I’ll watch pretty much anything with Joss Whedon’s name on it, but this was a slow starter. However, it has grown, and the last few episodes have been among the best.  Buffy was never a rating grabber, but it had a devoted audience. Too much these days, TV networks are looking for instant hits. Joss, go to cable, we’re begging you.

Last, but not least, Making Fiends. An old show on the web, then cable. Weird creepy tales. Each episode is three or four minutes long. A little girl named Vendetta makes fiends, while Charlotte makes friends. The third episode was entirely in Mandarin. Watch for yourself here.  

Spend recess well.

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