Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre Presents: THE CRAZIES

HEY Y’ALL, I GUESS I SHOULD WARN YOU THAT THIS REVIEW GIVES AWAY A FEW PLOT POINTS…BUT NOT AS MANY AS YOU MIGHT THINK –BROOKS

It’s 10:00 PM and the small farming town of Evan’s City is about be rudely awakened. Hundreds of soldiers enshrouded in white biohazard suits are rolling into town, rounding up the citizens, and detaining them at the local high school. A biological warfare germ, Codename Trixie, has been accidentally released into the water supply. Martial law is declared…

So begins The Crazies: a 1973 action thriller that was one of George “Night of the Living Dead”  Romero’s attempts to break free from the horror movie genre. Although The Crazies was shot on the cheap with a cast of unknowns, it is ultimately darker, more believable, and more entertaining than big budget movies like Outbreak.

The main characters of The Crazies are rapidly introduced and set into motion in two interweaving plots. First we meet David (Will MacMillan) and Clank (Harold Wayne Jones): two Vietnam vets with no desire to be rounded up under martial law. Joined by David’s wife and two other residents, they attempt to escape Evans City. They manage to evade the soldiers that cordon off the town — but the Trixie virus proves to be much harder to shake.

Next we meet Colonel Peckham, (Lloyd Hollar),seemingly the only sane man in the chaos of the military’s containment effort. Thrown into a rapidly deteriorating situation with virtually no background information, he struggles to maintain order in a morass of conflicting protocols, security barriers, and technical glitches. If he fails, a virus that always causes death or chronic insanity will escape into the continental United States.

This is not a movie to watch for deep, probing characterizations, although Romero’s cast of unknowns does a very good job of bringing their thumbnail sketch characters to life. While the two plots revolving around Col. Peckham and the Evans City escapees crackle along like something out of a good airplane paperback, Romero, with his usual mordant sense of humor, shows us how breakdowns in communications spawn chaotic violence.

The most intimate impediment to communication comes from the biohazard suits worn by the soldiers. Rendered faceless by gas masks, their muffled dialogue is barely audible. These masks are a constant liability — at one point a Vietnam vet on a berserker spree is able to take out dozens of soldiers simply because they have no peripheral vision. (And their blood shows up spectacularly on the white suits.)

The infected vet lacks the ability to prioritze. When he stops for a slug of looted whisky, is his Rambo spree is cut short in a shockingly undramatic death.

No one dies heroically in The Crazies. Trixie won’t allow it. The virus causes its victims to become lost in their own little worlds. (How wonderfully 1970s!) In one scene an infected hippie girl terrifies an entire group of soldiers. She only wants to talk, but is oblivious to their warnings, (“Keep Away! Don’t come any nearer! My God she’s one of them!”). This flower child confrontation finally ends when one of the soldiers shoots her. “Oh!” she says, finally understanding their words in the form of a bullet.

The situation is no better at headquarters. “This is so random!” fumes Dr. Watts, (Richard France,) one of the scientists who developed Trixie, as two MPs escort him to Evan’s City. “I’m telling you, this is a mistake!…A technician, a lousy technician, is all you need! If I don’t have access to my equipment, I’m useless!”

Throughout the film, Dr. Watts’s pretentious Mid-Atlantic accent is the voice of reason, railing against all the mistakes and arbitrary protocols that prevent him from finding a cure. Yet his own ability to communicate is hindered by his self-absorption. When he becomes convinced he has, in spite of all odds, found an antibody to Trixie, he chafes and frets at the voiceprint verification needed to inform Colonel Peckham of his discovery. Finally he decides to bring the Colonel the news in person — but as soon as he steps out of the lab the soldiers guarding Peckham’s headquarters mistake him for an escaped Evans City resident. They herd Dr. Watts into the Evan’s City High School, now a massive loony bin, where his cure is lost forever…

…Assuming, of course, that he actually found it. His lab assistant never spotted the evidence Watts viewed through his microscope. Was Dr. Watts on the brink of a cure, or had he just finally succumbed to Trixie?

Ringing with the sounds of unanswered buzzers, endlessly ringing phones, and distorted, unanswered radio voices, the network of missed connections rises all the way up through the bureaucracy of emergency powers to office of the President, who won’t even face his grainy teleconferencing screen while ordering a nuclear last resort. From the President to the Boys in the Trenches, it becomes impossible to tell who is A Crazy, and who Isn’t. Despite all this, at the movie’s end we meet a doctor who is smoothly confident that he will soon find someone with a natural immunity to Trixie.

“You wanna check this one?” asks a soldier, pointing to one of the Vietnam veterans – the one who has a natural immunity — the one that still lives. “You kidding?” The doctor dismisses the vet as obviously insane, and the vet, with his own history of being screwed over by the military, doesn’t say a word. In the world of THE CRAZIES the only successful forms of communication are found in the trajectory of a bullet or the stealthy vector of a disease.

 

Next time: Five years after making THE CRAZIES, George A. Romero combined its action-thriller format with the premise of the movie that first put him on the map. Meet me at the mall for DAWN OF THE DEAD.

(Want to know what I thought of the remake?  Check the comments.)

The Romero Portal

It’s the early 1990s and I’m in the video rental store again. Fluorescent lights flicker overbright in a room filled with prefab shelving and faded carpeting. Two high school girls stand in the front of the store, staring desolately at the new release section. “I’ve already SEEN everything!” moans one them.

Yeah, right! I think as pass them and head into the store’s crowded stacks. I’m a nerd child of the seventies and I remember how much work it was see movies I’d only read about. I’d scour TV schedules and movie advertisements in search of cinematic gems: sci-fi-fantasy-surrealist-classics that would make brief, furtive appearances on late-night airwaves and second run movie theaters. Now, thousands of plastic boxes scream for my attention, and even though I’ve been coming to stores like this for more almost a decade, I’m still overwhelmed by the sheer wealth of movie history on these ugly shelves. I’m surrounded by films I’d always dreamed of seeing.

I should probably grab one of those Fellini films I’ve always read about, or maybe that classic film noir that a friend told me about last week. But, once again, I find myself in the horror section, gazing at endless faded images of meat hooks and hockey masks and vixens with bad 80s hairdos. The video boxes bearing these images are crammed together. I have to pull them out and inspect them, one by one. Some are disturbingly sticky. I hope to find some lost classic I’d read about in magazines. I’d even settle for a promising assortment of Italian names…

In the future I will become obsessed with sharing some of these unearthed gems with my friends. When my future wife, Stephanie, and I move in together, we’ll have once-a-week movies nights presented under the moniker Ookey Nasty Horror Theatre. On these nights we will progress though all the films of David Cronenberg and Dario Argento, along with many of the films that influenced them. When that is done, I plan on changing the name of our festival to Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre and giving the same treatment to the works of David Lynch. But, as the once-a-week movie nights morph once-a-week parties, Stephanie and I become overwhelmed and Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre never happens.

However, I will persuade Dotty Oliver, publisher of a local alternative paper called The Little Rock Free Press, into letting me write a movie column. There, Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre will be reborn. In this column I will write about any old movie that I want to, with only one restriction: It has to be a movie that can be rented at a video store in the Little Rock Metro area. I’ll write this column for more than five years, and then Free Press will stop paying me and Mystery Floating Eyeball Theatre will go dark.

But that’s in the future. First I have to see these movies. Right now I’m staring at two video boxes that look particularly unpromising. One, The Crazies, features a guy in a hazmat suit on the cover. The other, Season of the Witch, features a woman’s face on the cover and a blurry picture of a guy wearing a demon mask on the back. But both are trumpeted as works of George A. Romero, the director of the zombie classics Night of the Living Dead, Dawn of the Dead, and Day of the Dead.

The Crazies. I remember seeing a newspaper ad for a double feature at a 1970s second run theater — and that was one of the movies. I didn’t go see it then, but I’ve got the box in my hand now and I’m taking it home. I don’t realize that I’m about to enter The Romero Portal. It leads to a world of filmmaking in which the low budget is a point of pride. Films shot on location, in which many of the actors might be wearing their own clothes, and the actors, well, some of them are really good and some…are not. But even the stiff performances give the proceedings a gritty cinema vérité feel.

Years later, I will launch my movie column with a review of The Crazies. So, now that we are both here, in the future, on my abandoned blog, let’s go through the Romero Portal. See you next time, on the other side…

Whispers from an Internet Ghost

A voice breaks the perfect silence of an abandoned blog. The voice is a whisper in your ear that says: “Press Play.”

You are in an abandoned blog called “Unpacking Decades”. I am an internet ghost, standing beside you. Look around. What do you see? An dark, uninhabited room full of old boxes. The only light comes from the frenzied activity of current, active blogs. Their light casts shadows into this room, which is now coated with virtual dust and bot-spun cobwebs.

Shift into the shadows with me, into other empty rooms. Look at this one. No boxes here, just a single bed where an angry man spewed invective at a world that had abandoned him. Now the room itself has been abandoned. And over here, just one room over, we see pictures of cats, so many cats who have long since used up all nine of their lives and passed forever into this phantom zone.

What’s this? An empty classroom or a class of rooms. All these websites were created by children as part of a school assignment. Most were immediately abandoned when the class ended. Except for that one there, which was updated regularly until about 18 months ago. Now it sits silent with its classmates.

And over there is a cancer journal that’s been dormant since 2015.

Let us rise and float over this landscape of abandoned Instagram accounts and YouTube channels gone silent and forgotten virtual pets in a continual starving stasis. The architecture of the abandoned web is astonishing in its variety. That little hut over there is a 1990s chat room that ended with the line, “We should meet in person some time.” That large, decrepit building over there is the site of a magazine that went out of business. It’s still festooned with barely functioning, flickering banner ads for products that no longer exist.

This abandoned part of the web is a rapidly growing city that has the haphazard architecture of a favela. In the distance are larger structures that loom like dark towers. The only light comes from residual automatic activities and the occasional glow of voyeuristic visitors like us.

Look. There’s a low pulsing blue white light coming from deep within that structure over there. Maybe it’s not abandoned. Let’s drift closer…

Huh. It’s MySpace. And it still looks inhabited. What are they doing in there anyway? I used to have some music in there. Some essays too. We look inside, peering through grimy, rippled windows. I don’t see my essays. The music is still in there, but I can’t get it to play. Or if it does play, we can’t hear it.

This abandoned ghost city is growing just as fast, if not faster, than the active internet. And more and more of it is automatically generated, as fictitious entities send unseen messages to nonexistent people and each meaningless transaction is archived as a gossamer strand. Botwebs. They cover everything.

Whoah! Did you see that? A whole sector up just went black, went blank. A malfunction? A crash? An unpaid bill? Or maybe it’s just been reclaimed, repurposed, gentrified by one of the corporate entities that own so much of what we see here. We must be cautious. Just as exploring a real ghost town has its hazards, exploring the ghost cities of the web might be dangerous to us. We wouldn’t know that the place where we stand had been deleted. We would only know we were suddenly lost, that we could no long contact the outside world and no one out there could find us. We would be trapped. Marooned. Waiting to be overwritten.

Yes, we should leave this ghost world. But I don’t want to. It’s so quiet here. Almost peaceful. Far from the screaming babble of Nau.

It’s funny. We are taught to find peace by living in the Now, moment to moment, but the World Wide Web turns that idea upside down. There’s no peace in Web’s Nau, just a constant screaming for attention. But go back a few years, or even a few days, and the screaming Nau fades into silence.

In this quiet our minds can drift back in time, back before this city existed, back before any city existed, back to when there was only the Now, the True Now. Moment to moment observed became day to day observed. We became aware of cycles and change, of the passing of seasons, birth, growth, and death. We were given the gift of Time. And our voices and bodies learned to express Time in song and dance. We began to tell stories and the stories gave us The Past, and The Past was like a dream that bound us together.

We met others with dream Pasts different from ours, and that was beginning of War. We learned how to communicate, trade and share dreams, and that was the beginning of Peace. And while this was going on we made markings, on the ground and on the walls and on stones and shells, markings that helped us count, markings used in trade. Trade became commerce. Money and Mathematics were born intertwined. Together they created our first virtual reality, a landscape carefully designed to differentiate those who had MORE from those who had LESS. And in in this primitive virtual space, those who had nothing were invisible.

Our markings and mathematics helped us chart the movements of the Sun, and the Moon, and the Stars. The heavens rewarded our efforts with a new kind of time:  Deep Time. We learned of cycles beyond days, even beyond years and seasons, cycles that repeated, and would continue to repeat. We were given the idea of The Future, and on that idea Civilization was born.

Our relentless markings became written language, carved in stone, written on papyrus and parchment. Our past was codified and became less like a dream and more like something we could touch — like our buildings, tools, clothes, masters, slaves…We bound our Past into holy books, which we reproduced and sent out into the world to conquer. Written language gave us Empire.

And every so often a monk or a mystic would step forward and say, “We’ve gotten caught up in something that isn’t quite real. We’ve lost the moment to moment. We’ve lost the Now.” And for a moment some of us would try relocate the Now like it was some lost Eden we could return to.

Fuck that. The Now is hot and boring and there’s so much going on that so so much more interesting. Like the invention of paper. Like the invention of printing. Now books can reproduce and propagate and spread the truths and lies and hopes and dreams and nightmares found within their pages, and it no longer matters so much each copy of a book is such a delicate thing, easily destroyed by fire or water or time, when there are multiple copies that still survive.

And we’re not just printing books. We’re also printing broadsheets and pamphlets and newspapers and magazines, none of which are meant to last, but some inevitably do, which means that the world will forever know that in 1789 84 year old Jervis Gibson, Esq., a senior alderman of Lincoln who liked to mix his own medicines, called for a servant to bring in one of his white powders, stirred it into a glass of water, drank it down, then stared in horror at the sediment in the glass, and upon examining the envelope that held the power, realized that he had just accidentally poisoned himself and promptly died.

We also know that in that same year the Duke of York told Colonel Lenox that somebody had been saying mean things about Lenox, but he refused to say who that somebody was. The two worked themselves into such a tizzy that the only solution was a duel, pistols at dawn, during which only one shot was fired and no one was seriously injured.

And it is recorded history that in 1789 Mrs. Collander had a beloved tabby cat named Mittens. Had Mrs. Collander been born a hundred years earlier we would never have known if she had a cat, let alone what kind of cat, but there they are, woman and cat, sitting proudly with Colonel Lenox and Jervis Gibson at the beginning the history of Nau.

Let’s go forward two generations, where we can easily find Mrs. Collander’s granddaughter, Mrs. Simons, and actually see a photograph of her beloved cat named Whiskers, along with other photographs of prize winners and politicians and local heroes and wanted criminals and criminal heroes and disgraced leaders and fallen soldiers, all staring at us with that same, stony, “please hold still for the camera” glare.

Mrs. Simons sat still, but Whiskers, not so much. He looks like a blur, a ghost of a cat.

Go forward one more generation and you can actually hear the raspy meow of TimTim, the favorite cat of Mrs. Simons’s youngest daughter, Daisy. along with other recordings made on wax cylinders, recordings of Tchaikovsky whistling, recordings of shockingly racist songs from old minstrel shows, and one surruptious recording of the orgasm of an anonymous woman now forever known for her enthusiastic vocalization of pleasure.

And as recordings begin to proliferate, pictures begin to move, trains and factory workers and showgirls and magicians, all in motion, all made of dancing light. We’d read about “Great Men”. Now we could see them. We’d read about Great Musicians. Now we could hear them. You’d think we’d have been disappointed by the weakly reproduced reality of these Greats, but no, our minds filled in the blanks and we were enchanted.

And there was so much money to be made with that enchantment. As movies became big business, from Hollywood and Rome and Berlin and London, thousands of stars were launched into the firmament. And, in an early home movie, we can see Shadow, the favored cat of Daisy’s youngest daughter, as he sits on a porch on a sunlit morning, his tail twitching back and forth.

Radio launched sound and music into the ether. We heard the voices of our great leaders as they lured us into the Great War. We saw their images on news reels, waving back at us. Also captured on film: the broken bodies that resulted from their words…

Radio stars were born: to sing and tell jokes and act out stories and offer words of comfort. Movies began to talk and we could see the stars singing into our ears and read gossip about their personal lives and see photographs proliferating through the growing magazine industry and Mt. Olympus was reborn and an endless pantheon of new gods and goddesses captured our souls and have never let go.

This pantheon was built out of vinyl records and film reels and tell-all biographies and glossy magazines. Magnetic tape was invented and millions of miles of audio and video were recorded. And oh-so-much of all this media preserved and enshrined the images of the gods and goddesses we created, trapping them in a continuous comedy and tragedy of heavenly beings who were slowly destroyed by the omnipresent images of their beautiful youth. These beautiful ghosts were the avatars the growing wave of the Nau.

Television screens filled the land. More Gods. More Goddesses. More war. Cats sang their own cat food jingles. In America we hired an actor as President to make us feel better about ourselves, and the growing Nau clamped down further on our minds. And we learned to digitally copy every piece of the Nau and every copy was just like the original and the Nau spread like a digital wildfire…

…and we reached a new century and every year of our existence has been logged, shared and stored and a cryptic pronouncement from the Fed has triggered a machine-driven market plunge and a cute puppy on YouTube is howling along with the sound of chanting Tibetan monks and another year has passed and every day of our existence has been logged, shared and stored and one of the lesser Gods of Hollywood is paying public penance for an ill-considered remark and we seek solace in the jovial voice of some British guy on YouTube playing a video game and then we find respite in a porno clip and a cute video of a kitten falling off a wall and another day has passed and every hour of our existence has been logged, shared and stored and a cascade of atrocities pours out of our news feed and superheroes are failing to save the day and we find imagined unity in an endless variety of musical genres that are all written with the exact same melodies soaring over the same four chords, uplifting us with words of empowerment and the brief release of a porno clip and another hour has passed and every minute our existence is now logged, shared and stored here in the omnipresent Nau and the shrieks of the Furies tear into another Fallen Star and rise up into the endless scream of Nau and angry tweets bleet into the endless roar of Nau and four chords uplift us into the howling chaos of Nau and puppies whine and kittens walk on keyboards and talking heads bellow into the brief release of a porno clip spraying across the chaotic hellish roar of Nau where another minute has passed and every second of our existence is logged, shared, stored…

…and forgotten. How can it not be? The signal-to-noise ratio is horrible. The indexing system for our endlessly stored and reproduced lives is terrible. We’re being over-written. But, before that happens, I’ve decided to reactivate this blog and post versions of columns and stories that originally appeared on oh-so-ephemeral paper and place them here, in a place even more ephemeral, where they might have one final brief flash of mayfly life before flickering away. And there will be a few new stories mixed in…and maybe even the occasional video, or piece of “music” like what you’re listening to right now, if you took my advice and pressed “play”. There will not be any videos of cats falling off walls. You’ll have to go a few rooms over for those.

For now, go whisper to another ghost, and in two weeks time, I’ll tell you about The Romero Effect.

A Happy, Belated Christmas

Once upon a time, a few years ago, my wife and daughters decided that we should all sit around drinking hot chocolate while I read the Clement Moore poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, like some genial Dad in a TV Christmas special. I agreed, but I couldn’t resist adding little details featuring my oldest daughter, Audrey, and my youngest, Celeste. I also spontaneously updated some of the details from the poem.

 I did this off the top of my head. None of my additions rhymed or scanned or anything like that.  But my family thought it was funny, and so naturally I’ve had to read “our” version of the poem each year, (which always changed, cause, you know, I was just making crap up.)

Finally, this year I decided to write the thing down so that the new details would fit more seamlessly  into the poem.  

I debuted this on Christmas Eve.  My family liked it. I added few more details on Christmas day.  And now, on the day after Christmas, I’ll share it with you.  

The meter is a bit shaky. Some of the rhymes are very weak. I even resorted  to “Seussifying” a word to make it fit. And, basically, this whole thing is nothing but a Caruthers Family in joke. But, it’s kinda cute and I’ve been missing from this blog for so long that this seemed a good way for me to poke my head out and say “Hi!” So, here it is.  Happy Holidays!

A Visit From St. Nicholas
by Clement Clarke Moore
(with sections personalized for the Caruthers Family by Brooks Caruthers)

 
’Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house
Nothing stirred except Audrey, who was quiet as a mouse.
(If that mouse weighed one ton* and was running to music
In little mouse headphones with beats oh-so-sick
that the mouse felt compelled to run like a rhino
while texting and giggling like a techno-crazed wino.)

However Celeste was all snug in her bed,
and visions of cyber toys danced in her head;
and Mom in her PJs and I in my shorts,
Had just settled in for some snores and some snorts,

When from our two dogs such a barking erupted,
I felt like my heartbeat had been interrupted.
I ran to the window with vision still blurry
To see what could make our beasts bark with such fury.

In the Arkansas winterscape: cold, wet and brown
by moonlight and streetlight not much could be found.
When what to my wandering eyes should appear
but a miniature sleigh and nine tiny reindeer,

With a little old driver so lively and quick,
I knew in a moment he must be St. Nick.
More rapid than eagles his coursers they came,
And he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name:

“Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen!
On, Comet! On, Cupid! On Donder and Blitzen!
Forward Rudolph! For we almost just nearly missed
that the house of Celeste is the next on my list!”

As leaves that before the wild hurricane fly,
When they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky;
So up to the housetop the coursers they flew
With the sleigh full of toys, and St. Nicholas too.

And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof
The prancing and pawing of each little hoof.
I ran down the stairs. I was worried and scared.
There was no need to fret for St. Nick was prepared.

He emerged from our chimney with treats in his hands,
And promptly he garnered two brand new best friends.
As each dog settled down with a Flavor-Chew Bone,
St. Nick took a moment to survey our home.

He caught sight of Audrey who sat in the den,
wrapped up in her phone as she texted a friend,
Then he shrugged and brought all of his attention back
to the wonderful toys that he’d brought in a sack.

His eyes —- how they twinkled! his dimples, how merry!
His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry!
His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow,
And the beard on his chin was as white as the snow.

Then he took out an e-pipe and blew out some gas.
(He’d taken up vaping and looked like an ass!)
The sight of St. Nick as a strange hipster elf
Made me laugh when I saw him in spite of myself.

A wink of his eye and a twist of his head
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread;
He spoke not a word, but went straight to his work,
And filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk,

And arranged all the gifts which were too large for sockses
In a glorious display of festive bright boxes
And when he was pleased with his Christmas display
He devoured the treats that we’d left on a tray

He washed down the sweets with a milk-dripping smile,
Then he stopped…

…and stared at the wall for awhile.

Finally he roused himself with a deep sigh,
And catching my eyes waved a final goodbye.
Then laying his finger aside of his nose,
And giving a nod, up the chimney he rose.

Then Audrey crashed into me, smiling in headphones.
We fell as the dogs tried to guard their new bones.
“Sorry Dad,” she said, “Hey, was there someone just here?”
I said, “Audrey, please take those phones off of your ears.”

We went to the window and saw St. Nick’s sleigh,
Fly off of our roof and up up and away.
But we heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,
“Happy Christmas to all, and to all a good night!”

 

*I should note that Audrey does not weigh one ton. She’s by far the most physically fit member of our family. But she is not light-footed. When she runs in the house, it really does sound like a stampede

Snailworld

More than 20 years ago I was listening to a John Otway album and suddenly got a ridiculous idea for a science fantasy world.

I dabbled a bit with the idea, but never got anywhere with it, so I moved on to other things.  However, every so often I would hear a piece of music that brought the idea back.  Finally, this year, I decided to to make a mix CD for my friends based on this idea.  Then I sat down and wrote this:  

 

Snail Title

A pilgrimage up the side of the trembling mountain is long and dangerous. But that is the only way you will meet the Communicants of the Truth.

They are called Communicants, but at first that seems a lie, for they do all in their power to keep you away from the Truth. They laugh. Sometimes they laugh loud and heartily. But most of the time it is little more than a mordant chuckle.

If you can make the Communicants laugh loud and heartily, then perhaps one will take you deep into a mountain cave that offers a glimpse of Truth.

Your journey into the cave will last three days. The first night will be the darkest you’ve ever known. No fires are allowed. Flames cause the walls to shake and convulsively constrict, crushing unfortunate pilgrims. For long hours you will see only what your mind imagines. Your guide will whisper something you’d heard as a child:  that all light in the world comes from an enormous ball of fire that is not part of the world.

Wherever the light comes from, you will be thankful when the walls begin to glow in filigreed patterns of rose and amber and it is day again.

On the second night you will realize that you can see your guide and the walls and your own arms and legs as faint shadows that are sometimes outlined in strange sparking flashes. Your guide will remind you that life is as short as these sparks and real time is longer than anyone can know.

On the third day you will see a light as bright as the shining ocean in the heat of midday.  This light shines at the far end of a huge, humid cavern.

“Welcome,” says your guide, “to The Palace of Snails,” and indeed there are countless snails, endless clusters of spiraling shells crawling over the abundant plant life that feeds them. It will take most of the day to traverse the cavern, towards the light. Most of your journey will be silent, but occasionally your guide will speak, and, in drips and drabs, you’ll learn the Joke of the World.

“All twins are close. Some are so close that they are born physically attached. So it was with the snail twins, conjoined at the rear. Left alone, they would have died, but The Makers took the twins to a faraway place and gave them three gifts:

“First was the gift of no weight. Floating free, each snail had equal footing on the shell of its twin.

“Second was the ability to eat light. The snail twins would never starve.

“Third was the ability to grow forever.

“The Makers set the snail twins spinning and circling the fireball from which almost all light comes — a perpetual source of food. And each snail twin stretched out and grew, reaching out to catch up to its twin, yearning to meet and touch and love the other, never understanding that its very own physical structure made this impossible. As they chased each other, the snail twins grew large enough to become all that you and I have ever known or seen or tasted.

“For that was the true purpose of The Makers. They were growing a home for us.  We were placed inside the shell of one. Others like us were placed in the shell of the twin. Like the twins, we will never meet the others.”

The Communicants have a keen sense of timing. Maybe it’s a flair for the dramatic. Or maybe it’s just that timing is essential in the telling of a good joke. Now the day is almost over and you are on the other side of the Palace of Snails and the light from the passage beyond is so bright that you cannot bear to look at it.

Hanging from a protuberance on the cavern wall are several pairs of dark, empty snail shells bound in twine. The Communicant places one pair over your head and adjusts it so that the shells cover your eyes. You realize that the shells are darkly transparent. You can now stare at the passage ahead, all narrow and slick and fleshy, without being blinded.

You look at the Communicant, who now also has shell-covered eyes. The two of you laugh like children playing a silly beach game.

You become aware of a chaos of sounds:  rustlings, the shrieks of distant creatures, and a low throbbing rumble that is more felt than heard. You feel as if you’ve heard these sounds your entire life but never noticed them until now.

You follow the Communicant into the passage and the light grows brighter and the sounds increase until finally the passage widens and there, on the right, is an incredible circle of light surrounded by blackness. Even with the snails on your eyes, you can barely look at it.

“Some have gone blind here,” says the Communicant. “Look this way instead.”

So you look to the left and see a cavern large enough to be another world. This world is filled with bustling life. Plants and mushrooms seem to grow before your eyes and animals and insects scurry to harvest the bounty, running and crawling and scuttling and flying and hooting cries of ecstasy. The frenzy reminds you of the life that can be glimpsed in a drop of ocean water magnified by powerful lenses.

The far wall of the cavern, the focus of the bright bright light, is a burbling roiling green, like a forest made from clouds. The green throbs. The cavern throbs. The frenzied life inside growls and moans and shrieks with the throb, in counter-rhythm, in dance time.

The blood in your veins also dances in time with the low, steady throb.

Vertigo washes over you. You feel like you’re standing on a narrow and treacherous bridge with an abyss of life on your left and fire-pierced blackness on your right. You lose your balance and fall with a scream towards the circle of light. A solid surface breaks your fall. You realize that your view of the light is a view through a great window.

And suddenly, the light disappears past the edge of the window and plunges you into darkness. The screams of the day creatures fade away, replaced by the furtive murmurs of night animals.

You hear a whispered laugh from your guide. Fingers gently remove the snail goggles from your head. “There is one more thing you must see.”

Through the window you see black void, but it is not empty. It is dusted with tiny white light points. First you see dozens.  Then hundreds. Then thousands.

“Each of those is another fireball, like the one that feeds our world. More than you can see, farther away than you can imagine.”

You’re perched on the edge of the world. The universe expands as you shrink. Only the steady warmth of your guide’s hand upon your back keeps you from shrinking into nothingness.

The Communicant laughs again. “Our entire existence is bound by the flesh of a lonely twin snail that yearns but does not think. Its desperate spin gives us weight. The fireball that feeds it gives us light and heat.

“The Makers are gone.  We do not know where.

“And it is said that one of the snail twins is dying. It has been dying for as long as we can remember. Which twin is dying, ours or the other? We do not know. What will happen when it is dead? Perhaps its death will also be the death of time…”

*   *   *

Night creatures scuttle and sing in the great cavern. Your guide leads you out of the trembling mountain. You pass other large caverns of throbbing life facing other snail shell windows. You come to understand that each of these caverns is a snail organ that converts light into living flesh.

The journey back does not seem to take as long as the journey in. Or maybe it’s just that your mind, so newly full of the universe, doesn’t register the passage of time in the same way.

Now you are outside, an outside that you now know to be a much larger inside. You stand at dawn on the edge of a cliff on the trembling mountain. With your new ears, you can still hear the throb and cries of life from the light caverns.

What will you do now? You could stay with the Communicants and learn the arcane science of humor with which they explore their world. You could go back to your village and live the life of an outside insider, like those others who have journeyed away and then returned. You could cross the great ocean and visit those on the opposite shore, and then travel further, to where the sky can be touched and whisperings from another world can be studied. Or you could climb further up the trembling mountain.

Light erupts from the great ocean and shines up to touch a filigreed snail shell sky. What will you do next in your beautiful, ridiculous world?

snail in space

The John Otway song that somehow triggered the idea for Snailworld is called “Beware Of The Flowers (‘Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeh!)”.

Why?  I don’t know.  Maybe it had something to do with the triumphant title.

Inspiration is usually not a linear thing.

I was also inspired by the second movement of Aram Khachaturian’s Piano Concerto, which features a passionate solo by what is, for all practical purposes, a musical saw.  Other inspirations include Tuxedomoon’s The Ghost Sonata, the Finnish group Värttinä, and a collection of pirate songs and sea chanteys called Rogue’s Gallery, assembled by Hal Wilner.

There’s a huge potential for stories set in Snailworld, if you get past the impossibility of its very existence. It has two civilizations that have had almost no contact with each other.  I imagine them having two different approaches to technology, and one of those two approaches has been fatal to their world, but I won’t say which.

Snailworld also has an enclosed setting that, by definition, gets smaller the more it is explored — at least until the impossibly large outside universe is discovered.

And the fact that Snailworld is alive means that the “humans” that live there are roughly equivalent to the bacteria in our guts.  They can be essential to the health of their world.  They can also be lethal to it.

You know, just like on Earth.

Whether I can get my shit together enough to write any of these stories, or con other people into writing some, is an open ended question.  For now though, let me leave you with the playlist of the mix CD:

snail cover

1. Klaus Nomi:  Finale

2. John Otway: Beware of The Flowers (‘Cos I’m Sure They’re Gonna Get You Yeh!)

3. Värttinä:  Vihma

4. Isobel Campbell: Are You Gong To Leave Me?

5. Unwoman: Siren Ship

6. Aram Khachaturian: Piano Concerto, 2nd movement, (excerpt)

7. Absak Maboul: Son of L’idiot

8. Björk: One Day (live)

9. Tuxedomoon: An Affair at the Soiree

10. Eliza Carthy: Rolling Sea (traditional)

11. Under Byen: Protokol

12. Tuxedomoon: Basso Pomade

13. Juana Molina: Dar (qué difícil)

14. After Dinner: RE

15. The Fairfax High School Marimba Band: Popcorn

16. Diane Cluck: Casting About

17. Bel Canto: White-Out Conditions

18. Aram Khachaturian:  Piano Concerto, 2nd Movement, (excerpt)

19. Tuxedomoon: Les Odalisques

20. Värttinä:  Päivän nousu nostajani

21. Tuxedomoon: Licorice Stick Ostinato

 

New Adventures In Rolling Dice

First of all I am here to share a piece of music I recorded four years ago, and finished mixing two years ago. Since then I’ve done nothing with it. Kind of like this blog.

A few days ago, after being instructed to play my music tracks at random, my iPhone offered up “New Adventures” as a random courtesy. I listened and thought, “I still like this. I should share.”

Here it is.

Go on and hit play. You can let it run in the background. There are no words till near the end, and those words don’t really mean anything. Plus, the darn thing’s about fifty minutes long and you don’t want to be tied to your computer or anywhere else for that long.

There are at least 8 distinctly different sections to this music. So remember that it’s like that old weather cliché:  If you don’t like what’s happening now, stick around — it’ll change.

I’ve labeled “New Adventures” as “ambient”, but in truth, it is a little more obtrusive than most ambient music. It wasn’t written for airports. In fact, it wasn’t written at all….

Sometime early in 2011 two members of Opera, myself and Chris Stewart, sat in a basement playing with smart phone apps, effects pedals, keyboards and guitars. When we came up for air, we’d recorded three hours of improvised music. Months later I listened to the sound files and was amazed. The first hour was typical — it had moments of interest but nothing I’d want to make you listen to. But the next two hours obsessed me. I sculpted the second hour into “Adventures”, which you can find on the Operaband Soundcloud page. The third hour produced “New Adventures”.

It was a good night. We should always celebrate good nights.

The titles “Adventures” and “New Adventures” are stolen from two classic bits of avant-garde weirdness composed by György Ligeti in the early sixties. What we did sounds nothing like what he composed and we are not fit even to lick his boots, but still…props.

It’s important to me pay tribute Ligeti because of the way he pulled me into the rabbit hole of the twentieth century avant-garde. Like most people, I was introduced to his music by the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. The 4th album I ever bought was the soundtrack to that film — I was 12 or 13 — and I listened to it constantly. At first the Ligeti compositions bewildered me. Then I was hypnotized. Then I found another Ligeti album — one that had “Adventures” and “New Adventures” — and I was bewildered all over again. But I kept listening, and as I grew into your basic college age weirdo I began to combine Ligeti’s strange vocal drama with a smattering of Samuel Beckett, a dash of Dada, and a shakerful of surrealism…and it all started to make perfect (non)sense to me. From there I tumbled into the worlds of Luciano Berio, Morton Subotnick, and John Cage.

Ah, Cage! Cage and his crazy chance music! It’s like Forrest Gump’s box o’ chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get. But Cage’s books and his famous Indeterminacy lecture opened me up to experiencing music and art in the present tense. I began to enjoy happy accidents.

The “New Adventures” night was full of happy accidents. Chris would open some iPad music app he barely knew how to use and run it through a bank of effects. I’d respond by picking random keyboard sounds and effects patches and using whatever noise they produced to respond to Chris’s sounds. Feedback occurred. Echos became loops. And even though I can’t really play organ or piano or any other kind of keyboard, I was still happy to open some strange iPhone app and play it with one hand while producing random keyboard drones with the other. If I’d had to think about what I was doing, it would have been impossible. But when I just did it, it somehow all came together. Happily.

Lately I’ve been rolling dice to direct my creative life. With two children and a forty hour work week, I don’t have a lot of time to plunge deeply into any particular project, and different mediums give me different pleasures. So I’ve committed to rolling a die and trying to accomplish something dictated by the resulting number.

If I roll “one”, I do mixing and editing on one of the many audio recordings produced by the various bands I’ve been in over the years.

If roll “two” I try to make sure that I do something that I might be able to use at the next Opera rehearsal.

If I roll “three” I’ve got to abandon creativity and make sure the checkbook is balanced.

“Four” means I gotta get a post ready for this blog. I’ve been rolling the dice for about two months now and have been amazed how rarely “four” appears, so I’m not rolling again until this post goes up.

“Five” calls for transcription, entering interesting notes, stories and lyrics from old notebooks into a computer. I’ve gotten some new Opera songs from that material, and I’m hoping that one of my big abandoned projects from the past may catch fire again.

“Six” is video editing. If you watched the “pagan” wedding video I posted last year, you know how obsessive I can be with that.

I’m not dogmatic about following the dice. If taxes are due, I’ll be doing finances no matter what number comes up.

Dividing my attention like this means I won’t produce anything fast. But it also keeps me from being overwhelmed by the amount of stuff I want to do. And it gives me a daily micro-goal, something that lets me go to sleep feeling like I’ve accomplished something.

And maybe, just maybe, it will allow another new surprise to come in. Another inspiration. A happy accident.

Well, you’re reading this, which means I got it posted. Time to roll again.

It’s a “two”. Sounds about right. Opera’s next rehearsal is tomorrow and I gotta get ready.

See you at the next “four”.

 

 

16 Years and Three Days ago, Stephanie and I had a “Pagan” wedding

Will you accept Eris, the Goddess of Chaos, as a decent excuse, and allow Cyril, the God of Alphabetical Order, to clean up occasionally?

Last winter, when we were cleaning out the shed of our old house, I was surprised and somewhat delighted to find an old liquor box, covered with bird shit but more or less intact.

wedding box before cleaning

I cleaned it up.  Inside were dozens of paper strips.

vow box

The strips were cut from tractor feed paper printed from my old mid-90’s computer.

vows on table

They were wedding vows, written by Stephanie and me.

Will you promise to hide all evidence of eating the last microwave burrito and deny that till death do you part?

When we first talked about getting married, we discussed having a civil ceremony or some sort of funky little self-constructed ritual.  But Stephanie comes from a large Catholic family and well — it had to be Catholic wedding.  Didn’t really have a choice there.

In the eyes of The Church, our is a mixed marriage.  Stephanie is Catholic, and I’m an Agnostic with Pagan tendencies. (I just told the Deacon I was Episcopalian.)

Do you promise to celebrate the often forbidden fun parts of Christianity, such as The Cult of Mary, The Homoerotic Jesus, and the weird little critters that hide within the geometries and ratios of any decent cathedral?

I didn’t have a bachelor party.  In fact, I’ve never even been to a bachelor party.  My friends and I just never got into the habit of doing that.  The women of Red Octopus did throw a bachelorette party for Stephanie, but, being a comedy group and all, it was really more like a parody of a bachelorette party. Heck, I was even required to show up as one of the male strippers. Fortunately, I didn’t actually have to strip.

I guess, in a way, you could say the “pagan” wedding was my bachelor party.  Or you could say it was my consolation prize for having a Big Church Wedding. But it wasn’t a Brooks party.  It was a Brooks and Stephanie party. So many of our friends, both old and new were there.  Even a few of Stephanie’s brothers and sisters showed up.

Will you accept J. R.”Bob” Dobbs as your personal saviour for as long as it’s convenient?  Will you kill him on a regular basis, and then take him out to dinner?

Our wedding was hosted by Renee Williams, who was also one of the attendants, as was Greg Hinspeter.  Looming over us was a large paper mache puppet of the goddess Diana.  Renee had constructed Diana for an outdoor production of Shakespeare’s Pericles that was produced by Red Octopus Productions.  In the play, Diana looked like this:

Diana on bridge

In Renee’s apartment, her enormous body is folded up a bit, but her huge head and hands loom over everything.

A dear old friend, who sometimes uses the name S.L.A.G. in SubGenius circles, was our priestess.  At random she drew our the wedding vows out of the Jameson carton.  When the carton was empty, she pronounced us married and Stephanie and I sealed the deal with some long, nasty kisses.

Do you promise to obey the urge to consume alcohol in great abundance on all Academy Awards nights and hate all nominated films?

Two days later we had our official wedding at St. Edwards Church and it was quite a production, orchestrated by Stephanie, that culminated in a lamp lit, bagpipe driven stroll to the wedding reception.  There we fell into a sumptuous repast provided by Trios Restaurant and danced to live music provided by a great local band called Toast — who let me join them on the bassoon for a special performance of the old Glands song “Bicycle Safety.”  Our wedding was even mentioned in the High Profile section of the Arkansas Democrat Gazette.

Even more interesting is the fact that our “pagan” wedding was mentioned in the Little Rock Free Press in their Low Profile section.  I thought it that was quite a coup.

Would you like ketchup with those fries?

Although our “pagan” wedding vows were little more than rude jokes, after the ceremony, I truly felt married.  The Catholic ceremony two days later just made it legal. And maybe the cosmos agrees — after all, three years to the day after our “pagan” wedding, our first daughter, Audrey, was born.  (Our second daughter, Celeste, was born on October 19th.  So maybe this only means that we used to have a lot of free time in January.)

In any case, Stephanie and I have now been together for 16 years.  And now that I’ve found the vows and started this blog, it seemed the right time to share the  NSFW video of our “Pagan” marriage with y’all.  There’s only one problem with that.  The video was shot with an old VHS camcorder in a room lit only by candles and one dinky flashlight.  The only time you can see anything is when someone takes a flash picture. So I extended out freeze frames of those flashes, wrote out the text of the vows so that you can read them whilst they’re spoken, and dropped in still pictures from the party and any other random illustration I could find to jazz up the visuals. Here’s the end result.  Think of as a weird slide show that uses the audio from the ceremony as a soundtrack.

And happy anniversary Stephanie.  Here’s to many more!

Attention Doctor Who Fans! The 13th Doctor Has Visited My Daughter!

So, yeah, I’ll admit it.  My daughters and I like watching Doctor Who.  My oldest, Audrey, (age 12), even likes watching all the old episodes from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.

My youngest, Celeste, (age 6), prefers the newer episodes.  The 9th Doctor, (Christopher Eccleston), is her favorite.  But the other day she brought me a picture she’d drawn and said it was The Doctor.

13th Doctor

Doesn’t look a thing like the 9th Doctor.  Doesn’t really look like any Doctor I’ve seen, not even the new 12th Doctor.  Celeste giggled and said, “And he talks like a girl.”

Doesn’t sound like any Doctor I’ve heard.  Not yet anyway.  Could it be that my daughter was visited by…The 13th Doctor?

My suspicions were confirmed during my morning shift at the Terry Library.  I was checking in the book drop and when I opened a child’s picture book, this visage confronted me:

the master

Even though the air conditioning in that section of the building barely works, I still shivered in the grips of a sudden chill, for I instantly recognized the insane gaze of The Doctor’s arch nemesis:  The Master.

When we discover scribbling and drawings in our library books, we’re required to write a dated notation on the pocket so that some future patron will not be blamed for the markings.  The notation in this book was dated 2008.  As always, The Master is playing a long game, angling to be in the perfect position when rebirth occurs and his universe-ending plans can finally be executed.

Peter Capaldi is only now starting his run as the 12th Doctor.  I hope that he has a long and entertaining run.  But when that run finally ends, stay tuned!  The Master will arise:

the master two

And this is the one who can stop him!

the 13th doctor 2

Intelligent.  Brave.  Witty.  Strong.  And he talks like a girl.

It’s gonna be a doozy!

 

Stolen from Paul Klipsch

Today I unpacked this coffee mug:  

Stolen from Paul Klipsch

I remember that I bought this coffee mug.  But I don’t remember buying it.  I remember that I was in Hope, Arkansas when I bought it.  I must have been in a building connected with Klipsch Audio Technologies.  But don’t remember where they sold coffee mugs.  I remember that I was in my late teens when I bought it.  But I can’t remember which year exactly.  I can only guess.  

Let’s…let’s say it was the spring of  1980…

What do I remember?…

 

The building was small and filled with antiques.  A strange old man named Paul Klipsh was playing a shellac disc on an old Edison record player.  The music was a bassoon and piccolo duet called “The Elephant and the Bumblebee”.  With the lower frequencies attenuated, the bassoon didn’t quite sound like a bassoon, but the piccolo was easily recognizable.   The playback was purely mechanical — no electrons were harmed in this musical performance.  How was this possible?  The record player’s cabinet was all one large horn that amplified the vibrations from the record needle.  The mechanically amplified music from this record filled the room. Klipsh could even turn down the volume by adjusting a lever that stuffed a felt ball into the mouth of the horn.

This room, part of Klipsch’s audio museum, was filled with horns that were twisted into all sorts of strange shapes.  One humongous horn was curled up in a spiral. Klipsch let us talk and whisper into tiny opening at one end of horn and marvel at the surprisingly loud sound that emerged.

Who were we?  Boy Scout Explorer Post 297 — a small group of teens who were theoretically exploring a potential careers in physics and engineering.  You can forget the Boy Scout connection — we usually did.  There were no uniforms. There were girls in the group…one or two at least.  Basically, the Explorer post was a marvelous social group for nerds.

Every Monday we met in the Physics lab at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.  There a young, earnest associate physics professor named Steve Crawshaw would show us cool science tricks.  Listen!  You can hear sounds at a distance with this parabolic microphone! Look! This diode emits a laser beam!  (Those were still pretty new back then.)  Stand on this spinning platform.  Hold out your arms and we’ll spin you.  Now lower your arms.  Whoa! You’re spinning faster, like a figure skater!  Angular momentum must be conserved.  Dizzy now?

Every week was like a weekly episode of Mr. Wizard mixed with puns and bad jokes.  (If you’re too young to remember Mr. Wizard, just think Bill Nye with a much lower budget.) And every spring we’d carpool up to Hope, Arkansas.  There we were greeted by Paul Wilbur Klipsch and given a personal tour of Klipsch Audio Technologies and the Klipsch Audio Museum.

 

I have a confession to make.  Earlier, when I said “Today I unpacked this coffee mug,”  I was lying.  I actually unpacked it several months ago.  But I didn’t want to start by saying, “Several month ago I unpacked this coffee mug….”

Even if I had unpacked the mug the day I started writing this blog entry, it would be a lie, because weeks have gone by and I still haven’t finished the damn thing. Similarly, some of the memories I recount are only partly from my brain.  Some are reconstructed from research.  Some are not even my memories…

 

We were in the anechoic chamber at Klipsch Audio Technologies.  We had entered by way of an enormous revolving door that formed one of the chamber’s corners. The rotating door allowed Klipsch a choice of four different corner options for testing his speakers.  One corner was just a corner.  One was a corner with a with a ledge.  One corner was like a wall with a speaker hidden behind it.  And one corner was lined with the same enormous sound absorbing wedges that covered each wall of the room.  That was the corner facing us when the room was sealed…the large rubber gasket lining the edges of the corner door inflated.  Ssshhhunck!  We were now trapped inside one of the quietest rooms in Arkansas.  Any noise we made vanished into the wedges.  No reverberation.  No echo.  Anechoic.  The silence felt like pressure in our ears.

Years later I read John Cage’s account of sitting in such a room and hearing the roar of blood in his arteries and the whine of his nervous system in operation.  But we were nerds, together in a room, so we did what all nerds would do.  We whispered stupid jokes.  Our laughs fell flat — sucked into the walls.  Then Klipsch let us out.

The reason for the unusual design of Klipsch’s anechoic chamber was that it gave him more options in testing and refining a special sort of speaker he’d first built back in 1946…a speaker designed to take full advantage of the amplifying properties of the horn shape.  That’s why his audio museum was filled with horns.  He was fascinated by them.

What Klipsch built looked sort of like this:

Early Klipschorn

Doesn’t look like a horn.  But inside this cabinet the speaker diaphragm send its sound waves from one expanding chamber, to another, to another… A folded horn.  It was designed to sit in the corner in the room, where the sound would exit through the back of speaker cabinet, into the room’s corner, and finally out to the listener’s ears. The room’s corner became part of the folded horn.

Look at the picture of the coffee mug.  Study the logo.  It shows you exactly what a Klipsch corner horn does.  Or, as it was soon dubbed, a “Klipschorn”.

 

For years I thought that I’d made the trip to Hope at least twice.  But lately I’m thinking that I just went once. My friend Tommy Trussell had gone the previous year and told me all about it, told me about the rotating anechoic door, about being invited into Klipsch’s home, and even about riding in Klipsch’s Mercedes…  

 

The car was big and Klipsch drove fast.  Some one noticed an unusual gauge mounted onto the dashboard.

“What’s that?”

“An altimeter.  I’m using it to monitor the air pressure in the carburetor.”

Klipsch didn’t say anything else.  We had figure things out from there.  “Oh yeah…that’s how altimeter measures altitude.  By measuring air pressure…”  We never did find out why he wanted to monitor the air pressure in his carburetor.

Even though we were high school students, Klipsch never talked down to us.  While showing us his speakers and his lab he would reel off the technical specifications of what we were hearing and seeing and then wait for us to pick up our side of the conversation, staring at us with intense eyes set inside a totally impassive 70-year-old face.  This face here:

klipsch face two

Since I usually didn’t have the slightest idea what he was talking about, I found that gaze rather intimidating.  Fortunately, some of the others in our group were a helluva a lot smarter.  They kept the conversation going.

Later, while visiting the airfield to look at Klipsch’s plane, he asked, “did you hear about the cow that backed into a spinning airplane propeller?”

“No.”

“Disaster.”

Once again, the stony, impassive gaze.  But this time I knew what was going on.  I may not know circuitry, but I know comedy!  Yes, he said “diss-assed-her”.  Yes, it was a pun.  Yes, we all laughed weakly.  We weren’t about to tell him it was a lousy joke….

 

I know I was on that airfield, that I heard that joke.  I know it because he’d make the exact same joke a year ago when Tommy had visited.  In fact almost everything Tommy had told me about the previous trip was happening again.  So did I go to Hope once or twice?  Did I ride in Klipsch’s car?  I seem to have vague, snapshot memories of it, but I can’t be sure.  

 

I don’t recall ever seeing Paul Klipsch smile.  There are pictures of him smiling.  It’s not the most comfortable looking smile in the world.  But he very much had a sense of humor, one that we would now categorize as classic nerd humor.  Puns and arcane, technical satire.  Klipsch once wrote an entire fake article proposing a combination hi-fidelity loudspeaker and cooking oven.  It was his way of satirizing the high power requirements of many deluxe stereo systems. He was quite proud of the Klipshorn’s efficiency — even one watt of power produced good, strong audio.

And he was hugely fond of the word “Bullshit”, which became the unofficial slogan of his company.  According to legend, the slogan was born when Klipsch was reading a hi-fi magazine. After growing increasingly annoyed by reading the hyper-inflated claims of a competitor’s line of speakers, he threw the magazine in the air and yelled “Bullshit!”

Thirty years after he did that, I was able to buy this T-shirt:

IMG_0958

Wait.  Let me show you the back.

hobbit back

I wore this shirt every chance I could get.  How could I not?  There was a hobbit sitting on a cool piece of technology on the front and the word “bullshit” on the back.

I also had a yellow button that said “Bullshit” in a fancy Old English font.  I didn’t have to buy that.  Klipsch gave those away.  Originally he only gave the buttons to purveyors of bullshit at meetings of the Audio Engineering Society, but by the time we visited Hope he’d just give ’em to anyone who wanted one.

Paul W. Klipsch died in 2002.  He was 98 years old.  At that point his company had grown beyond Hope, following the corporate growth policy of eat or be eaten that characterizes modern capitalism.  After buying out several small audio companies you’ve probably never heard of, Klipsch Audio Technologies was itself bought out by Audiovox in 2011.  But hi-fidelity equipment is still manufactured under the Klipsch name.  Of course it is.  If you type “Klipsch” into Google, Klipsch Audio Technologies and the late Paul W. Klipsch dominate the search results — in fact, I had to go to page 14 of those results to find an an unrelated Klipsch.  The name itself was worth the money.

Modern Klipsch equipment is made in Indiana.  None of it looks much like the old Klipsch speakers.  On Consumer Reports, the earbuds get the highest ratings.  Tiny little earbuds.  Who’d a thunk it?

However, you can still buy Klipschorns and several other classic Klipsch speakers. Here, let me turn around my souvenir mug:

klipsch mug back

The first four speakers listed are now called Klipsch Heritage speakers.  They’re still being made in Hope, Arkansas.  Actually they’re made to order.  Handcrafted, with a beautiful sound.  Set you back a pretty penny though…they ain’t cheap.

But just think about it!  Two excellent loudspeakers to finish that vintage stereo system you’ve been assembling.  Think of how well they’ll go with your decor, your belief systems, your deeply held convictions of how life should be in this impersonal mass-manufactured world.

Now that your system is complete, you’ll invite me over to your house so that you can show off the legendary live Klipsch sound.  I’ll admire the workmanship that went into each speaker as we sip a rather hoppy, micro-brewed beer lovingly crafted in the Belgian style because the Belgians are the greatest beer brewers in the world — everyone knows that!

You will, of course, be playing only vinyl records on a restored Yamaha YP-211 belt driven turntable, amplified through a Kenwood Ka-7100 amplifier, because the analog sound is so much warmer than the digitally encoded sound of CDs and even modern lossless digital files.  I’ll smile weakly through a mouthful of locally sourced salad greens that I can only assume have a wonderful fresh flavor hiding behind the truffle oil in the salad dressing.  Yes, I guess James Taylor does sound warmer.  Sounds like he might even be here the room with us, hiding in the Klipschorn corners.  I wonder if he’d like the blue cheese topping you placed on what would otherwise be an excellent grass-fed free-range beef tenderloin.

I think I can almost taste the grass.  Or maybe that’s the quinoa pilaf.

Yes.  Please.  I’d be happy to have another glass of burgundy.  Fill ‘er up and I’ll entertain the notion the Texas Hill Country is the new Napa Valley.  At least this wine will allow me to bide my time.  I might even make it halfway through side one of Workingman’s Dead before your repeated comments that Jerry Garcia sounds so much warmer, so much more organic on vinyl, force me to unholster my vintage Colt Derringer and fire a locally sourced, handcrafted silver bullet into your skull.  I get the bullets from an eccentric old gentleman in Smackover, Arkansas. So much warmer, so much more lovingly organic as the silver penetrates your forehead and slags into your grey matter, don’t you think?

But I digress…

I know the next memory is truly mine…

The only time in real life that I’ve ever sat listening to a pair of Klipschorn speakers was in Paul Klipsch’s living room.  Bright sunshine illuminated the patio on the other side of an enormous picture window.  The picture window was a bit of a problem for one of speakers — the large pane of glass was not a good surface for the final part of the speaker’s horn.  To remedy this, Klipsch built a free-standing wooden corner.  It sat on the right side of the room with the speaker nestled inside.

We weren’t listening to vinyl.  We were listening to a reel-to-reel tape of the Arkansas Symphony Orchestra that Klispsch had personally recorded.  Every time the ASO had a Sunday concert Klipsch would leave church, get into his car, and drive like a bat out of hell down to Little Rock to record the matinee.

The tape sounded…fine.  In sounded like a live recording of a 1970s semi-professional orchestra. The Arkansas Symphony Orchestra sounds much better now.  Modern recordings of the ASO sound better too.  But what we heard sounded good, sounded great in fact because we hearing it through Klipsch’s passion for the music and through the grace of his hospitality.

 

More than a month has gone by since I started this post.  Why so long?  I had to read up on Klipsch, which was interesting.  I had to talk to Tommy Trussell, which was a pleasure.  I even had to research details for a fictitious scene of appalling violence, which raises the question “Dude, what’s your problem?”

 

I guess I must feel rather ambiguous about consumer electronics. The reason I so violently dispatched the hypothetical Klipschorn owner is that I feel like I’m in constant danger of turning into him — particularly now that I’ve bought a big house and a big flat screen TV to go in that house.  (That big flat screen TV is another reason it’s taken me so long to finish this.  Think twice before getting one — they’re horribly addictive.)

I’m sure the mostly male species I’ll dub “Assholes With Stereos” goes back as far as the first Edison phonographs. Klipsch was always very savvy about marketing to this species, which is why he was such a successful businessman.

But there’s another strain, another human species with DNA wrapped around the history of hi-fi. It is the species that includes old ham radio enthusiasts…and electronic hobbyists…and nerds who take things apart and put them back together.  On that day Klipsch invited us into the tradition of that species, the tradition of eccentric inventors, obsessive tinkerers, and mad engineers.  Some of the members of Explorer Post 297 sitting Klipsch’s living room were already a part that tradition. One member had even started to build his own loudspeakers in his bedroom. His dad was a professional inventor.

I never really had what it took to be part of this tradition.  But some of it is in my DNA.  As I worked on this post, I was surprised to realize that both my dad and Tommy Trussell’s dad had built their own stereo amplifiers, the ones that we had grown up listening to.  Although I was never a builder, my dad did help me research and buy the components for my first stereo system. I still have two of those components.  They still work.  I still use them.

I was a visitor, not a member, but I can still thank Paul Wilbur Klipsch for showing me his hospitality and his passion.  And now I can raise my souvenir coffee cup and toast him.  Cheers!

I’ll leave y’all with an Opera selection that sounds like we built an assortment of odd electronic creatures and set them loose in the studio:

(For a shorter, more factual article about Klipsch, click here.)

Dadahead Didn’t Make The Move

This blog is supposed to be about what I’ve brought with me, but I had to leave a lot behind.  Like Dadahead.

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Dadahead was made in the summer of 2002.  At that time I was still with the Red Octopus Theater Co.  We were doing a summer show of sketch comedy in the back room of a micro brew pizza joint called Vino’s.   We had just learned that putting local ads on late night basic cable was surprisingly cheap and I had already used my shiny new G4 to create an advertisement for our spring show:  Murder At the Prom.

The sketch comedy show was called Pagans By The Pool.  An advertisement idea possessed my brain, but I couldn’t verbally describe it.  So I just ran out and made the thing.  I’m still quite proud of it.  Take a look:

Dadahead was made of canvas, chicken wire, crepe paper, pie plates, paint, and poster board. Renee Williams, artist extrordinaire and owner of Gallery 26, painted the face so that he’d actually have a personality.  My old friend Kathleen Pyeatt agreed to appear wearing a swimsuit and a mask.

We shot the video in one afternoon at Martha Alman’s pool, sucked all the video into my computer, and then Steve Ross and I put it all together.  Donavan Suitt did the voice over.  Sandy Baskin, Aisha Credit, Donavan and I did the voices.  And then the damn thing aired twice on late night Little Rock cable television — during The Daily Show, I think.  Don’t know if anyone came to see Pagans by the Pool because of this ad, but I still love the idea that it happened.

Later Dadahead made a live stage appearance after Jennifer Pierce suggested that we do a sketch about Dada Square Dancing.  After that I lovingly tucked him away in our shed.

Our brown recluse spider infested shed.

So, I couldn’t take Dadahead with me.  He was full of poisonous spiders.  Bye Bye Dadahead.  I’ll miss you.

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By, the way, the guitar didn’t make the move either.  It was also full of venomous spiders.  Don’t feel bad for it, it was already ruined.  The only reason I’d held onto it was I had this vague idea of making a music video for a song called “Creeger”.

“Creegar” was one of the best songs on an unreleased tape called Wa-Huh by my old group The Glands.  (Or as they’re now known:  “The Glands (Little Rock)”.  I have to make that distinction because there have since been other bands from other geographical locations called The Glands.) The song is performed by the great Sternodox Keckhaver, Pope of all Arkansas.

Sterno was always vague about what “skleegars” are.  “You just don’t want to get in ’em” was all he’d say.  In this studio version of the song he calls them “mutant plants”,  so in the video I wanted to show mutant plants destroying a guitar.  That never happened, so I let Dadahead keep the guitar.  I’ll leave the rest of you with the song.   Here’s “Creegar”, recorded, I think, in 1990: