Monday, December 21, 2009

My Favorite Christmas Things

In no particular order:

*Listening to Roger Waters' "Amused to Death" in the dark, Christmas night, 1992.

In the olden days, my father would bring us to his aunt and uncle's house in Melrose for Christmas dinner, and give us our Christmas gifts when we got home. Melrose was probably an hour away, and we'd usually stay late, so we wouldn't get home until 10 or 11 o'clock at night. In 1992, my dad gave me "Amused to Death" the new solo record from Pink Floyd's Roger Waters. I'd asked for it having seen a magazine ad for the album's cover, a monkey watching a TV set. I had never heard any of the songs, nor had I heard any Pink Floyd (although my friend Jesse would lend me a copy of 'The Wall' about a week before Christmas), but something about that album cover really grabbed me, so when I opened it up Christmas night, I went down into my dad's unheated basement to listen to it (that's where the stereo was--it had speaker hook-ups throughout the house, but my sisters were asleep) and I sat in the cold dark as monkeys screeched and little boys talked about war, and scared the shit out of myself.

*Reading "Arkham Asylum" by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean, Christmas night 1989, 10pm-11:45 pmI don't think I've ever been so excited by a Christmas gift that ended up horrifying me so much. Released following the successful Batman movie, Arkham Asylum by Morrison and McKean is probably the most disturbing thing I'll ever read. Because when you are 10 years old, there are fewer disturbing things than reading a book on Christmas night about Batman stabbing himself in the hand with a shard of glass.

*Listening to "Fairytale of New York" on repeat at the Rockpile, Christmas Eve 2001

I used to work at a great used record store in my hometown, and I used to work Christmas Eve morning before my boss came in and the place basically turned into a Christmas Eve party for all his friends. I put this song on, probably the only song that reminds me of Christmas that is actually about Christmas, albeit a Christmas between a drunk and verbally abusive couple.

* Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge from the Simpson Christmas episode, Christmas 1995

The Simpsons have done several Christmas episodes, but this is my favorite. Bart really wants a particular videogame called "Bloodstorm" and after several attempts to earn the money, he instead shoplifts the game. It's actually a pretty heart-rending episode, as Marge discovers his larceny and feels like she doesn't even know her own son anymore. And while it does have a pretty sappy climax (Bart takes the money he's saved and has his portrait taken for her) the ending is maybe my favorite Christmas ending of all time. Marge gives Bart his gift--shaped like a video cartridge--and he opens it expecting Bloodstorm. Instead it is 'Lee Carvallo's Putting Challenge'--Marge informs him that Bloodstorm was sold out. This kind of reminds me of me and my mom.

* Pretending "The Road to Ensenada" by Lyle Lovett was country music, Christmas season, 1998

I was involved with this girl who really loved country music (I remember she had a Garth Brooks boxset) and I was really, really, really trying to learn to like it, as almost a Christmas present to her. Lyle Lovett was about as far as I could go.

*"Sin City" by Frank Miller, Christmas night, 1992

I remember telling my father's older cousin asking me what I had asked for for Christmas, and when I told him a few CDs and a few comics, he asked me if they were those kind of comics with naked ladies in them. I said no, but when I finally got a chance to go home that night and read the first Sin City collection, which my father had gotten me for Christmas, well, Frank Miller made a liar out of me. That's a comic with a lot of naked ladies in it. And I think reading about a guy sawing off somebody's limbs and feeding to the dogs on Christmas night would have disturbed me more if I hadn't already read Arkham Asylum. I was growing up.
* The "Madonna" episode of MacGyver, Christmas, 1989

I loved MacGyver when I was like 9 or 10, and this Christmas episode, in which a statue of the Virgin Mary disappears, and the Boys and Girls club that MacGyver's friend works at is going to be closed, except they put on some kind of talent show that saves the club and oh, yeah, it turns out the Mary statue didn't disappear, it just turned into a bag lady who made MacGyver finally deal with the death of his mother, and you may say that I don't love Christmas, but I love this.

*The Fourfignewtons Shirt, Amherst MA, Christmas 1997

My friend Jess' birthday is about a week before Christmas, and I went to visit her in Amherst one year for it. She's a lover of really bad jokes, and I found this t-shirt with four fig newtons dancing in a chorus line, with the tag "fourfignewton" (play on the Volkswagon farfegnugen catchphrase) and then we went Christmas shopping in Northhampton, and I bought the really weird Joni Mitchell album where she included random recordings of people singing happy birthday to Charles Mingus and listened to it the whole long and cold ride back home.

*Watching Bob Dylan Unplugged, Christmas Eve 1994

Surprisingly, I don't think I had ever heard "Like A Rolling Stone" before, and this is the version I hear whenever I think of the song. My favorite bit, however, is Dylan's realization a few bars in that the band's instruments are out of tune. This raises the interesting question: If Bob Dylan can tell when things are out of tune, why has he been singing like that for forty years?

*Reading "Jack Kirby's Fourth World", Christmas 2008

For those who are unfamiliar with Jack Kirby, he created the Fantastic Four, Captain America, the Hulk, and the X-Men, as well as literally hundreds of other characters. But none of his work gives me as much joy as the Fourth World, a series of comics he did for DC in the early 70s. I had black and white reprints of most of them, but last Christmas crazily splurged and purchased all four hardcover collections of the work in color and in the proper order. There's really nothing Christmas-y about gods who look like Black olympic skiers and who collect the spirits of the recently dead. Or maybe there is?

*Watching "True Stories" on DVD, Christmas Eve 2000

I'd seen this movie back in the winter of 1992, and I probably could've included it then, but 1992 is pretty jammed packed. I got my first DVD player in 2000, and this was the first DVD I got to watch in it. It's the movie where David Byrne from Talking Heads puts on a bolo tie and makes fun of people from Texas for an hour and a half.
There's a part at the end of the movie, where Byrne as narrator talks about how he likes forgetting. Leaving a place, and you forget all the things and people and places, and so when you go back there you get to rediscover them all again. This is probably one of the central tenets of my life, and why I can listen to Bob Dylan flub the intro to 'Like A Rolling Stone' or reread a drugged-up Batman kicking a supervillian in a wheelchair down a flight of stairs, or listen to Roger Waters talk about how God wants TV and cash contributions, because during the year I forget all these things, which allows me to come back to them and rediscover them like I was 10, or 13, or 20, all over again.

That having been said, this year will be the first year my wife-to-be and I will be spending Christmas together, so I imagine in a few years, a list of my favorite Christmas things might look entirely different.

Monday, December 7, 2009


I don't know what it is about the early winter months that makes me nostalgic for overblown, bombastic, and pretentious rock albums. I figured I'd take a break from all that and listen to one of the least overblown, bombastic, and pretentious rock albums of all time. Pink Floyd's The Wall.

I have to admit that I had no idea who Pink Floyd was in the early days of December 1992, when my friend and bandmate Jesse let me borrow his copy of the wall, taped off of his father's vinyl. I subsequently dubbed a copy of that tape, which meant that for the first four years of listening to this album, it was on a twice-dubbed cassette copy of a 12-year old vinyl record. Meaning that, while 13-year Ryan listened to this album for the first time with the lights off in his bedroom, freaked out by all the strange noises and weird screaming that accompanied this album--due to the poor quality of the tape he had, there was still so much strange noise and weird screaming he couldn't hear.

"In the Flesh?"-So, if you're making an overly pretentious and overblown concept album, the first thing you need to do is record a piece of spoken dialogue and then split it in half and play the second half at the start of the record and the first half at the end, so that it creates a loop. I think Britney Spears did this same trick on "Oops, I Did It Again"

I have since read many books on Pink Floyd, a band that I have been fascinated with since that fateful December night 17 years ago when I first heard singer/composer Roger Waters barking out orders to the lighting crew before airplanes zoomed by and crashed. So I know a lot of the backstory behind the creation of this album: Waters' loss of his father in WWII, the slow descent into madness of Floyd's first singer, Syd Barrett, the increasing dehumanization of rock n' roll tours. But I knew none of that when I first heard this album. Instead, I thought I was going fricking crazy.

"The Thin Ice"- Yoko Ono's biggest solo hit was a song called "Walking on Thin Ice." I mention this because Roger Waters sings a little bit like Yoko Ono on this track. Which is to say not at all.

"Another Brick in the Wall, Part 1"- This album was also my introduction to songs that had parts to them. In my youth, a song was a song, and then you'd just hear another one. But then Roger Waters came along and decided that songs were never finished, just replayed again later with slightly different lyrics and even more headache inducing vocals. This song ends with a long guitar coda overdubbed with sounds of children playing. This scared the shit out of me when I was 13 for some reason.

"The Happiest Days of Our Lives"- This song starts with a helicopter. I don't really know why. I also don't know why that this was its own song and not just the beginning to "Another Brick in the Wall, part 2" It's all about how teachers are mean to kids. Which means your seventh grade brother wrote it.

"Another Brick in the Wall part 2"-Somewhere, someone has written a 40-page dissertation on the way this song blends disco beats with the refrain "we don't need no education" but I don't want to read it, and neither should you. And the person who wrote it should be ashamed of themselves. This song is famous for its use of a children's choir on the second verse. Those kids were all paid for their services with a copy of the album. Roger Waters used the money he made off this record to buy a private island. I don't know what that means, except that while Roger Waters has gone to write and record several more rock operas and one for real opera, none of these school kids ever went on to record their own rock opera. So while we'll never know who was the real musical genius behind the Wall--Roger Waters or a group of 20 eight year olds--I think we can make an educated guess. What?

"Mother"-After hearing this song, I was terrible to my own mother for about five years. So I think Pink Floyd owes my mother an apology.

"Goodbye, Blue Sky"-This is a really beautiful song about a cat eating a bird. And then about some zombies.

Then there are two flowers raping each other.

"Young Lust"-I think this song reveals the brilliance of the collaboration between Roger Waters and guitarist David Gilmour. So this song is supposed to be about a young boy's grappling with his nascent sexuality in the grip of a controlling mother.
I feel like Gilmour took one look at the song title and said "'Young Lust'? My guitar knows how to do that." and turned Roger Waters lonely song about masturbation into one that was 100% about cock. That's magic, folks.

"One of My Turns"-This song starts with the mother from Leave it to Beaver playing an operator trying to reach Pink Floyd's wife. And some man answers, which leads Pink Floyd to bring a groupie back to his hotel room. And then the groupie talks about all the cool stuff that it's in the room. This lasts for about forty-five minutes. Then the song starts. Over a really 1979-esque synthesizer, Pink talks about feeling cold as a razorblade and tight as a tourniquet and dry as a funeral drum, and then the drums and guitars kick in, supposedly representing his freak-out. He asks the groupie if she's like to see his favorite ax. When I was 13, I didn't know that people referred to guitars as axes, and thus thought he had turned into a serial killer. Or a lumberjack.

"Don't Leave Me Now"-During this song he doesn't mention anything about trees or logs or how cold it is, so I'm thinking he's not a lumberjack.

"Another Brick in the Wall part 3"-I had to convince my mother to let me rent "Pink Floyd The Wall" the movie from our local video store because it was rated R. I'm pretty sure I saw it before Christmas, which was only about two weeks after Jesse lent me the album, but it seemed the longest two weeks of my life. I was desperate to see the film the band made about the album, and when I finally saw it, it was torturous. It felt like two whole weeks while I was watching it. I thought that maybe everything just felt like it took forever when I was 13, but last year I tried to watch 'The Wall' movie again, and after about four hours I stopped, unable to take anymore. And that only got me to the second roar of the MGM lion.

"Goodbye Cruel World"-This is the end of the first disc of the double album, and I wonder what someone would've thought if they bought this from like a used record store and it only came with the first disc. I'd ask them, but they probably have killed themselves due to extreme depression.
The stage show for this record involved a giant wall being built across the stage with this song being the one where Waters inserted the final brick. I actually think this is one of the coolest conceits for a rock n' roll show I've ever heard of, although I don't know how I'd feel as an audience member if the band I went to see didn't want to see me so much they built a wall in front of me.

"Hey You"- I remember I went with this girl named Jenny to a homeless shelter to volunteer, and when her mom was driving us, this song came on the radio, and Jenny said "Oh, Mom, I love this song! Turn it up!" and I decided this meant that she and I needed to get married. She went on to become a Patriots' cheerleader and I write about albums I listen to on a blog that nobody reads, so you can see how that turned out.

"Is there Anybody Out There?"-This is a mostly solo acoustic guitar piece. I'm sure if I went to the Wall show, this is where Floyd started throwing rotten fruit at the audience from over the wall.

"Nobody Home"-This is one of the most affecting songs on the album. And really, if you wanted to know what Roger Waters felt about the rock n' roll lifestyle, this song would do the trick. He talks about having the obligatory Hendrix perm, which someday, when I'm not too busy writing on this blog that nobody reads and wondering what Jenny is up to, I might go into a barber shop asking for the obligatory Hendrix perm just to see what might happen.

"Vera Lynn"/"Bring the Boys Back Home"- These two songs are really one song, which is all about WWII. Roger Waters is meant to connect rock n' rollers going out onto tour with young men going off to battle the Nazis. One group saved Europe from self-destruction. The other made it cool to wave around lighters and dayglo sticks in the air and yell out "Freebird." I'm not one to pass judgment.

"Comfortably Numb"- This is probably the most famous song from this album, and is probably tied with "Money" to be the most famous Pink Floyd song of all time. Which is funny, because it's all about getting a hyper-cortisone shot before going onto stage to perform in a giant stadium rock show. That really boils down the universality of the Wall to its core, doesn't it?

This performance is from 2005, the final performance of Pink Floyd ever, and the first time the original (well non-Syd Barrett original) members played together in 25 years. I mention this because for all the fun I'm poking at this record, seeing this band reunite after so many years was a big deal to me, even though I was an adult. It was a great moment. Even though David Gilmour looks a little bit like Skeletor.

"The Show Must Go On"- You wouldn't know it from the liner notes (the liner notes don't even mention the band's drummer,Nick Mason, so I'd hardly call them comprehensive) but this song features background vocals from Toni Tennille, from the Captain & Tennille. Which might be the scariest thing about the whole record.

"In the Flesh"- A reprise of the album's opening track, this time without the question mark, and with added racial slurs. There's some business when you watch the film that Pink Floyd (the character, not the band) has turned in a fascist. Which I guess is cool. I mean, I'd guess I'd rather have a rock star pretend to be a fascist then pretend to be a socialist, like when John Lennon tells us to imagine no possessions when he's playing an ivory grand piano in his mansion.

"Run Like Hell"- At this point in the record/movie/Roger Water's life, things are so bleak I applaud all of us for keeping on.

"Is there anybody weak in the audience?" We're all weak, Roger.

"Waiting for the Worms"-There's actually an interesting point to be made with the central metaphor of this song, about how isolating ourselves from the world makes us vunerable to the decay of self-doubt. The problem is if you weren't isolated from the world before you listened to this record, you probably would be by the time you got to this song. Although I suppose it's better than another Captain and Tennille song, I suppose.

"The Trial"- I can't even imagine being a Pink Floyd fan during this time, having grown up with the band since the late 60s. Getting stoned and listening to Ummagumma or Set the Control for the Heart of the Sun getting to the end of this record and hearing them performing a Gilbert & Sullivan number about dueling toothed vaginas.
And giant balls.

Somewhere there is a cassette tape featuring the band I was in when I was 13 performing a cover of this song. This alone will prevent me from ever running for public office.

"Outside the Wall"-At this point in the show, the giant wall would be torn down, showering lightweight cardboard bricks on the audience, followed by this quiet melodica-driven song. On the tape I had, the sound quality was bad, I don't think I even heard this song at all the first few times I listened to the album. I was still thinking about the raping flowers, and giant toothed vaginas, and how rock music turned you into a nazi, and I just pulled the covers over my head.