Monday, August 28, 2006

08-20-2006 -- the silver Fringe

As inadvisable as it may be to dose up with hallucinogens for a stroll through the Fringe – there are rabbit holes you might never again climb out of, and a tunnel packed stroller-to-fannypack with the sunburned faces of Edmonton’s mass-affluent might be one of them – I can yet imagine how literally awesome a holistic, transcendent, mushroomy view of this scene might be. The Fringe as vast machine, cosmic clockwork, wheels within networked wheels grinding out Festivity: the intricate gearing of administration and volunteer politics; the mechanisms of management; the hundreds of ticking backstage production dramadies behind every show in every venue, and the apparati of the plays themselves… an infinite, whirring, whirling mandala… the Mind of the Eternal…

…whoa. See? Even wide-eyed and arrow-straight, my mind’s bent by this scene, the surface of the Machine, the street sensorium of the milling midway that is the beginning and the end of the Fringe experience for many or most. Searing solar radiation and the smell of salves that stop it; close-pressed bodytides against (or with) which we waddle awkwardly, familiar streets and sidewalks forgotten; scent of samosa and sausage, fried whatnots, sharp B.O., hair conditioner; the grotesque and the gorgeous, heads and tails of the same ugly coin; idiot commentary and bratty mewling passing in half-heard snatches, drowned by drumming and – worst of all, wosre than the shrieking of the PAID IN FULL sticker-hawking girls -- the endless patter of street performers.

I’m not quite ready – or, my curmudgeon quotient is not yet high enough – to say “If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.” Charitably, I offer that if you’ve seen some, you’ve seen many. Most. The majority. Magical busking is an ancient art; I don’t doubt that medieval groundlings and the spectacle-loving citizens of Rome before them would be instantly (after translation and localization) familiar with “Anybody here from Calgary? You, sir? OK… I’ll… speak… very… slowwwly!” Hyuk. The same jokes, the same tricks, the same rhythm and “ladiesngennlemin” cadence in every circle, on every stage. Get all voodoo about the holiness of street performance: the Sacred Fool speaks with the voice of the god. True… but the god needs new material.

Very rarely, he gets some. I didn’t know what to make of Montreal’s Raphael at first – other than thinking he was kind of an asshole – but by the time his routine wrapped with some of the most direct, pointed, no-nonsense money-guilting I’d seen on site I was as much a fan as I could be. First, his look: weightlifter build, Medusa inked on tanned skin, square jaw and swept blond hair, prop-filled toolbelt over dark jeans – about as far from the shabby pseudo-vaudeville of the linking-circlet circuit as you can go, and light-years away from the insufferable motley of the Wacky Fellow ghetto. His tricks n’ gimmicks weren’t all that special, off-the-shelf Ye Olde Magick Shoppe illusions, but his delivery… well. If there’s one place that needs a menacing magical macho-man telling mouthy brats to shut up and humiliating ringside celphone chatters, it’s the Fringe. Bravo.

Elsewhere, the same old story – scraggly strummers and Doug “Push-Up Man” Pruden, hippie bongo beaters and still more Wacky Fellows, not one but two purveyors of the mystical pan-flute. You’ve been down there, right? The height of entertainment, for me, was seeing a trio of space-age dancing girls, head-to-toe in silver lame and bodypaint, freaking the hell out of some dude’s Boxer. Moving slowly in time, swaying like metallic Venusian foliage, alien and inhuman, that poor dog didn’t know what to make of them, barking and growling, scared and confused and frantically questioning the very nature of human form and movement. I imagine that, theoretically, that’s the reaction their art is meant to cause in the souls of their human audience. Instead, they got bemused frowns, and little kids waving hands in front of their faces. We’re all Philistines, space ladies… next year, put Captain Kangaroo noisemakers in your mouths and do the Funky Robot.

Image: Self Portrait As A Pathetic Clown
© Arthur Davis Broughton 2000, used without permission

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Baby That's the Bleeps

The sweet spot at the Sidetrack seems like the sort of space one would avoid at a live show. But that stout square pillar at stage right casts a nice big crowd-shadow, an open area of air and freedom amid the multitudes jostling and tippy-toeing for sightlines, and if you don’t mind not actually seeing the band – you can peek around the corner now and then if you need to, make sure they haven’t been replaced by karaoke ringers – the sound is fantastic. You’re more or less at the mirror coordinates of the sound guy, and the mass of the pillar cuts out the nasty white clash of raw loudness so you get a full, nuanced sound you can really let your ears wander around in. That’s where I am now, zoning out and nodding as Carla Bozulich wails through “Baby That’s the Creeps”, thinking about Pokemon.

Pokemon? It happens, sometimes. I’ll catch a glimpse of a faded Bulbasaur or Tentacool sticker on a ratty old binder in a pile of end-of-the-month dumpsterside junk and it all comes back to me – the long walks through the tall grass on the outskirts of Pallet Town, scaring up wild Pidgey and Kakuna; the strategic intensity of the gym battles; the raw fever of Gotta Catch ‘em All! But why now, and why here?

Sound triggers, man; the melody, as they say, haunts my reverie. It was almost eight years ago, in the deep autumn of 1998, that I began – improbably, almost impossibly – my career as a videogame writer with a right-place-right-time pitch: working as a proofreading drone at the Journal, I saw the Pokemon press kit neglected on the edge of the then-Entertainment editor’s desk and, having a friend recently come back from Japan with wide-eyed tales of Pokemania, insisted the thing was going to be huge and that I should knock out a preview feature. That turned into a weekly thing, the sweetest and easiest money a hack could ever hope to pull… and throughout that bright and golden time I was listening a lot to Butch, the second album from Carla’s band the Geraldine Fibbers. The music’s different, but the built-in codes of her voice – that feral twang – are taking me back, displaying the years.

Those were exciting days, and tough to leave behind; musically, spiritually, emotionally, morally, financially and professionally I’ve never really escaped from that ’98 basement suite. And why escape? Along with Butch, there’s the Zoobombs’ Welcome Back, Zoobombs!, Cibo Matto’s Viva! La Woman (already a year or two old) and Beck’s Mutations soundtracking Oddworld, Ocarina of Time, Legend of Legaia (don’t laugh) and Bushido Blade. There’s Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear Solid and R.L. Burnside’s Come On In. There’s the sweet rush of that first no-roommate pot-smokin’ bachelor living… and all it takes to return is the sight of an old grey PlayStation, a whiff of Nag Champa, a single second of a certain quaver in Carla’s voice.

Eight years! Eight years. A lot of water under a lot of bridges, thousands of hours of videogaming for rent money. Plenty of time for a network of audio associations to build up, wrap themselves around my memory core and send their tendrils deep. Some are less subtle than Carla Bozulich sending me back to Pokemon Red on my old Game Boy Pocket… to this day, I can’t hear an Offspring song – any Offspring song – without having my head shoved back to a blissful Y2K and the power-brat “Yah-yah-yah-yah-yah!” that kicked off every sweet Dreamcast Crazy Taxi run. Damn… there was a videogame! Crazy drifting through traffic with a screeching harpy in the backseat, giving you shit because you couldn’t get her to the KFC in less than twenty goddamn seconds. Look, lady… the place is only 800m away! What're you taking a taxi – let alone a crazy taxi – for, anyway? YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH-YAH!

It works the other way as well, when there’s a phrase in a game’s music that’s similar enough to the melody of a pop single that you can’t play the game without getting that song stuck in your head. The GameCube cleaning-robot adventure Chibi Robo, for example, had something in it, somewhere, that lodged Cyndi Lauper’s “She Bop” deep in me for weeks. And I seem to recall an old Japanese RPG – I think it might have been Star Ocean – that so aggressively re-introduced the Scorpions’ glasnost anthem “Wind of Change” into my psyche that I had to quit playing. Currently, playing Oblivion, there’s this one bit that nags me, a snippet of '80s pop in the score I can’t quite nail down and it’s driving me crazy. I’d turn off the in-game tunes and slap in some Danzig... but Oblivion’s music -- which changes to Battle Theme whenever trolls and skeletons and shit want to kick your ass -- provides an indispensable danger sense.

Up on stage, Carla’s into the title track from her awesome new record, Evangelista. Pokemon thoughts fading, coming back up into this moment behind my pillar, I’m kind of glad my friend and I didn’t follow through on our supernerd plan to bring our Nintendo DSes to the show: do I really want to spend the next eight years hearing a haunted, wavery organ drone every time I fire up PictoChat?

Friday, August 11, 2006

08-06-2006 -- Big Valley Jamboree

Driving on booze,
Natural thrill;
How can anyone deny a kick?
-The Molestics, “The Pleasures of Drunk Driving”
Kids, don’t try this at home – you won’t have nearly enough room, for starters. For a good golf-cart joyride you’ll need acre upon gleaming white acre of RV parking and the miles of rain-rutted mud roads that run through them. Plus, you’ll need a cart borrowed from a buddy who borrowed it from a buddy, and a brave buzz that leaves instinct and reflex unblurred. You’ll need a will to cut things close, as that’s the only way to build a sensation of speed in a vehicle that’s been governed down to top out at about the rate of a rickety retiree huffing to catch a bus. Even then, you’ll want a copilot who’ll keep you honest, who’ll harangue you for letting up on the gas, who’ll stomp the pedal down for you if you get too chickenshit. These are necessary elements; it’s a big responsibility, being this irresponsible.

It’s that kind of paradox that powers the Big Valley Jamboree, just like it powers any good-sized festival of institutional fun and frolic – the paradox of party in chains. Here is a central core of old-time country nostalgia and new-time country hoserdom wrapped in intricate layers of gates, places, wristbands, zones, passes, rules, rigidity and enforcement; its musical accompaniment a slick aping of forgotten folk forms brought to us packed and backed with millions of dollars of Machine Money. This isn’t just a slag on Hot Country – all mainstream music rips and repackages the real – and it’s not really a condemnation of BVJ’s ironfisted organization, either; without this twenty-to-one redneck-to-redshirt security ratio, something this big would rip itself apart. It’s just, you know… it's not my scene.

So, why am I here? Good question; it’s pretty much a combination of a friend having access to an RV and me having access to a free weekend. Sometimes you just want to get out of town, and the destination is seconday… or tertiary. In this case – one wild motor-tour of the T&A-filled wonders of the campground aside – it’s been so far a weekend of lounging around our out-of-the-way parking spot, sipping drinks, playing scrotoss and catching my breath. No phone, no pool, no pets, no tent to set up, nothing but sweet, sunshiny (after Friday night) sloth. I suppose I could have done the same thing somewhere else, somewhere much less Camrose… but then there wouldn’t be an RV, and the RV is key.

With gas prices likely guzzling their way up to a buck-twenty and beyond, these monsters – even a baby monster, a gremlin like this one – make no financial sense except as compared to hotel rates, and make no conservation sense except as compared to travelling in a cart powered by a waterwheel turned by a steady stream of Super Unleaded pouring out onto the highway. But, fuck me running… what blessed luxury! Three bunks, table, toilet, tanked water, and a propane-powered fridge keeping eggs, steaks, bacon, franks and two flats of Pil icy cold. A roof you can listen to rain falling on, without cringing away from nylon walls. I’ll never roll quite like this, myself – no plausible future scenario gives me the kind of bank I’d need – but every minute of hard-sided, upholstered motorhome occupancy makes my old hippie-wagon fantasies knock a little rougher against the walls of my soul.

My alarm clock this morning was the delicious PSSHT of a roommate cracking a cold one; in lieu of toothbrushing, I had one myself. Breakfast was deep-fried bacon, with eggs poached in the grease. Desert was a camping-cup of Toscano Rosso from a 4l box and a neuron-baking blast from a ‘70s-era “power hitter”, a solid column of opaque white smoke sniffed nasally rather than sucked, in the interest of Science. Thus fortified, there is water enough for a cold shower and a room-temperature Consul (like a Caesar but with gin; you make do with what you’ve got) before grabbing a luncheon joint and an orphaned Kokanee tallboy for a little early-morning scrotossin’.

I can’t hear the sounds of the day's Bulls For Breakfast event – bullriding with a side of sausage n’ pancakes – so I’m guessing it’s not yet ten. On a normal camping trip, I’d be worried about starting so early; here at Big Valley Jamboree, with a cushy sheltered bed waiting for me, falling back asleep as soon as possible is just about the best Sunday I can imagine.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Go-anywhere gaming

“How long must we fight these same battles?”– Arngrim, Valkyrie Profile
A string of numbers on the status screen, an accusation: 17:23:45. Seventeen hours and counting over the course of five days; 17 hours of wrist-aching PSP time, 17 hours of thumbing my way through the bullshit of Valkyrie Profile. Calendar full of deadlines, notebooks full of unrealized projects, sink full of dishes, room full of laundry… it’s a full life. What would you do with 17 spare hours in high summer?

These ridiculous gaming jags are getting fewer and farther between, but with infrequency the shame gets sharper. Play like this all the time and it’s a lifestyle… but burn a critical weekend on a six-year-old role-playing game that you’re not even really enjoying – VP went cold at about hour six – and it starts looking a lot like depression. Then again… seventeen hours over five days? That’s just your average drone’s television diet – probably even a little lighter than most folks’. So why does it seem worse, more embarrassing, when it’s a videogame?

‘Cause gaming is nerdy, I guess; as much as the videogame subculture is growing and establishing itself as one of our main streams, its population is still tiny compared to the markets for television and movies and such… when someone decides to lay on the couch for four or five hours eating stale chips and guiding magical fantasy warriors through a bunch of monster battles, he’s wasting time with useless garbage; if the same dude, on the same couch with the same chips, watches magical fantasy warriors fight a bunch of monster battles, he’s spending quality time with Peter Jackson’s swords-n-sorcery masterpiece.

Ah, who am I kidding? Seventeen hours is seventeen hours, and Valkyrie Profile is to Lord of the Rings what a vinyl Zellers Halloween poncho-and-mask combo is to Spider-Man’s costume. I’m not feeling guilty and depressed because our culture isn’t ready to accept gaming as a legitimate pastime… I’m feeling guilty and depressed because I’ve got ten million things to do and I’ve just spent the equivalent of two work days doing sweet fuck all, knowing I was doing wrong, hating nearly every minute of it, and doing it anyway.

Non-gamers… do you know what it’s like, the terror in this? To be grinding, grinding, grinding away at a game for hours, hypnotized by repetition – role-playing games, with their unending series of “just one more” milestones are worst – and all the while there’s a remnant of your consciousness screaming “Fucking stop this nonsense! You’re on a goddamned deadline!”… and you won’t make yourself stop. You’ll make little deals -- I’ll just level up this one guy; I’ll quit at the next save point; after I beat this boss, I’m done – and you’ll screw yourself over on each one. There’s no joy in playing like this, only stress, regret and self-loathing.

Worse is that I’ve been playing on my PSP, and its screen is very shiny. If you’re not careful -- if you let your eyes and brain pull your visual focus back from the glowing depths where your attention needs to be, or if you forget to look away when the screen is black – you get a nice, clear closeup, at the worst possible neck-fat angle, of your face. Your desperate face, eyes dead and glassy, sockets bagged, mouth slack and unsmiling. That same face that was reflected in your childhood glasses of kool-aid, the same face you despairingly OxyCleaned for an hour before your first date… but in these moments, in that black mirror, every spoiled dream from every wasted minute from that moment ‘til now is right there to be mourned.

Life During Wartime, August 1, 2006

The last show of this run, and I kinda phoned it in. I'll be back on-air sometime in the fall, and covering shows here and there 'til then... that's CJSR, in case you've forgotten.

Laurie Anderson -- O Superman
Yo la Tengo -- Little Honda
Pain Teens -- Cool Your Power
Black Keys -- Have Love, Will Travel
Ladyhawk -- The Dugout
Califone -- Border Lord
Bob Dylan -- Cold Irons Bound
Monster Movie -- Hope I Find the Moon
Mark Olson & the OHRCD -- Linda Lee
Sun Kil Moon -- Grey Ice Water
Townes van Zandt -- You Are Not Needed Now
The Minders -- Savour All the Days & Jenny
BIZ -- Pork U
Billy Bragg -- Help Save the Youth of America
The Jesus & Mary Chain -- Happy When It Rains
Takako Minekawa -- Cloud Cuckooland
Marc Antoine -- Can You Feel It?
Nostaglia 77 -- 7 Nation Army
Vic Chesnutt -- A Little Vacation
The Doers -- Moment Noticed
Devo -- Midget
Pizzicato 5 -- 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 Barbie Dolls
Eric B & Rakim -- Make 'em Clap to This
Johnny Cash -- Five Feet High and Rising
Pere Ubu -- Down By the River pt. 2
Judas Priest -- Painkiller

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

07-21-2006 – Outfall 239

“This one’s got some vengeance!”

My buddy yells over the nasty klank-klank-KLANK-KLANK crescendo of a fist-size rock tumbling at speed down the corrugated trough of the storm-drain outfall, and I look up from the pebbly shore of the North Saskatchewan just in time to dodge the missle as it hops over the stones and bloorps into the river.

“This one, too!”

Klank-klank-KLANK-KLANK-tik-tik-bloorp. This is a fun game, aiming rocks up the slope at the culvert and dodging them as they ricochet unpredictably back down. Really, what would I rather be doing on this glorious summer day, with the sun stooping through the iron web of the High Level bridge, than goofing around on the riverbank, hucking rocks and laughing?

We’re all so very proud of our river valley… but for me, fun times right down at water’s edge have been few and far between since I was a kid skipping rocks (or trying to skip rocks; I really do suck at it), head ringing with motherly forbiddings. The river, I was told, would suck me right under. I wonder if the waving couple out there this afternoon, holding hands and drifting by in their beer-laden innertubes, got that memo. Maybe the Demon Undertow only comes out when he’s got a roof of ice over his grisly head…

I know Mayor Mandel’s river-raising idea is old news, but I can’t help but think about it when I see the kayaker working out around the LRT bridge pilings, and these happy floaters spinning past in a silence that allows a speaking voice to reach the bank. It strikes me, now, that the water level’s plenty high to allow the only kind of boating we need… the quiet kind. Certainly the three dudes that came powerboating by earlier, standing ramrod behind the windscreen in their slacks and polo shirts, were having the kind of fun only appreciated by affluent shitheads and the pleb drones who envy them: the joy of making a deafening racket by igniting gallons of liquid cash.

Man, my arm’s gonna ache tomorrow. This rather dangerous game – only fool’s luck has kept rock and noggin vectors from intersecting; it’s mostly shins that’ve been taking the bullet – is just the latest of the stone-throwing events in today’s Hoser Olympics. Earlier hours were spent in the pursuit of hitting one largish tossed rock with a smaller rock, moving-target practice over the flowing highway. It’s kind of like a stoned simulation of the American missile defense system, with similar rates of success -- and we wouldn’t stop until we all four of us got at least one, preferably two, solid intercepts. Hundreds of launches, with only occasional breaks for fluids and fresh air… and before that was an hour’s worth of plain ol’ hit-the-log for a warmup.

Who needs riverside commercialization? It’s perfectly possible, you know, to have fun that doesn’t involve getting a receipt. I’m just about as happy as I’ve ever been, here and now, and when it comes time to buy food and drink there’s any number of taphouses with deepfryers just up the slope. I agree it’s nice to enjoy a drop of wine with the sun shimmering on the river – and I just did that, without tipping a waiter, without rezoning a park.

Before we leave, we decide to send a message in a bottle, a single slip of paper declaring its truth to some lucky downstream scavenger: OUTFALL 239 RULEZ. Sweetening the pot, we include a delicately dried crab claw found wedged between two little boulders, and a piece of Chinese “hell money” that from two feet away looks exactly like an American hundred. Seeing the glint of greenback in the riverborne flotsam, will somebody let avarice put them in harm’s way? Probably, but… hey; that’s comedy!

The setting sun’s flickering shadows over us, right through the windows of the passing LRT. We set our Gallo Galleon into the river…

… and huck rocks at it, desperately, until it’s out of range and on its way. What else can we do? This evening, hucking rocks is our thing.