Monday, February 28, 2005

And Now the Non-News

(Or, How the Media Can Redeem Itself)

An unidentified but technologically proficient ne’er-do-well hacked Paris Hilton’s T-Mobile cell phone and posted the contents on the internet yesterday. Among the electronic swag were celebrity phone numbers, private email correspondence, and suggestive pictures of the blonde socialite and a female friend. “I think it’s disgusting that someone would do such a thing,” said Hilton. “Though in retrospect, it’s hardly as disgusting as invading a sovereign nation on false pretenses and sending young men and women there to die.”

Opening arguments have begun in the Michael Jackson child molestation trial. Prosecutors opened with a litany of the King of Pop’s quirks and accused him of exposing the 13-year-old victim to a variety of strange sexual behavior. In a surprise move, Jackson’s defense attorneys responded with a question: “Why are there so many reporters covering this trial when they could be writing stories about how the White House knowingly leaked classified information to a neo-con operative and gay prostitute?”

Are they or aren’t they? Just weeks after separating, Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston shared a romantic dinner on Valentine’s Day, leading to speculation that reconciliation is imminent. Dining at their Los Angeles mansion, the estranged couple enjoyed Chinese food from their favorite restaurant and expressed utter disbelief that the President of the United States thinks people are ignorant enough to fall for his “Social Security crisis” routine.

In local news, firefighters in West Smalltown rescued 93-year-old Mildred Fern’s cat Spunky from a tree Tuesday afternoon. “We’re always glad to help people in need,” said Fire Chief Rex Putnam. “It sure beats taking away individual freedoms in favor of corporate interests and religious fundamentalism like a certain Bush administration I can think of.”

Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Amazingly Wrong

One fine day in 1978 when I was alphabetizing my collection of vinyl records, I noticed that quite a few of them had notches cut in the cover, about a half-inch long and an eighth of an inch wide. First I thought it was the work of my younger brother, but then I realized that for someone to cut that many notches in the exact same fashion would have required the diligence, precision, and devious mind of a crop circle maker, and that just wasn’t his style.

Eventually I learned that I was the owner of several “cut-out” records, which, as I understand it now, were records that didn’t sell well during their first release and were thus notched and marked for the bargain bin.

That explained how I could afford so many records. “You mean this copy of Emerson, Lake, and Palmer’s ‘Works Volume 2’ didn’t sell out the first time? Gee, I just thought it was a temporary price reduction.”

It was in the bargain bin that I found an album, incredibly cheap, by a group I’d never heard of called Amazing Blondel. There were vague references to English folk music and Elizabethan instruments on the cover, so I figured for 99 cents I couldn’t go wrong.

I took the record home and slapped Side One on the turntable, and what came out was the dreariest, most soulless, most godawfully boring music I’d ever heard. I actually checked to see if I’d accidentally switched the turntable speed from 33 1/3 rpm to 16.

My brother came in and had a listen, and fell asleep standing up.

For the next 25 years, he and I shared an in-joke: Whenever the subject of bad music came up, we’d look at each other and say “Amazing Blondel.”

We spent a quarter of a century defaming the name and sullying the reputation of a group we assumed split up and took non-musical jobs shortly after recording that tedious first album.

But a couple of months ago I was surfing around the All Music Guide site, and just out of curiosity I looked up Amazing Blondel’s page. They hadn’t given up music. In fact, they’d put out quite a few albums and were still appearing at festivals throughout Europe. This can’t be true, I thought—you can’t build a career on a fan base of insomniacs.

So I listened to a couple of samples from the group’s second and third albums, “Evensong” and “Fantasia Lindum.”

And damn. They were good. They were, I hate to say, amazingly good—good enough for me to get out my debit card and order both CDs. For the next three weeks, that’s all I listened to in my car. They harmonized beautifully, and they played their Elizabethan guitars, lutes, citterns, harmoniums, and ocarinas with a light airy touch that made you feel as if you were romping through the English heather with the stablemaster’s daughter.

Well, that’s how it made me feel, anyway.

I called my brother and had him listen to one of the songs, “Spring Season,” to see if he could guess who was playing it. He didn’t have a guess, but said it sounded good and asked for a hint. When I said “I believe in second chances,” he didn’t miss a beat: “Amazing Blondel.”

So I don't know what I was expecting from that bargain bin album, and frankly I don't even remember now what I heard. I can't guarantee someone didn't slip an Elizabethan garage band's demo disk into an Amazing Blondel sleeve. But now, as reparation for past snap judgments, let me go on record as saying those Amazing Blondel CDs have enhanced my music collection—and, what the hell, they’ve enhanced my life as well.

When I’m wrong I’m amazingly wrong, often for 25 years at a time.

Monday, February 21, 2005

An Inauspicious Debut

Last night a friend of mine said "I'm surprised you don't have a blog."

I said "Really? Cause I'm not surprised in the least, given the number of notebooks I've purchased for journal-writing purposes and then abandoned after one or two pages. I'd hate to go to the trouble of starting a blog and then have it sit gathering cyberdust after the obligatory 'Welcome to my blog' entry."

But then I got to thinking about it and decided that I might as well try it, if only because I don't have a good outlet for expressing my contempt for the "Alley Oop" comic strip.


I'm passionate about a lot of things. I think George W. Bush is the worst president in history. I think Jerry Springer is at least partially responsible for the decline in civil behavior, and I wish SNL would go back to featuring more eclectic musical acts. I believe that elected officials who seriously consider amending the Constitution to outlaw flag-burning probably don't have the brains to be in office, and should consider refunding a portion of his or her salary commensurate with the time spent thinking about something so flagrantly unconstitutional.

At some point I plan to write at length about all those things. But right now I just can't believe how ridiculous Alley Oop is.

In the category of Comic Strips Set in Prehistoric Times, Alley Oop holds last place only because the self-righteous and preachy B.C. does still, on rare occasions, fire off an amusing gag.

Alley Oop spends most of his time in the land of Moo, acting as bodyguard for King Guz and romping with his pet dinosaur Dinny, who, along with the numerous other dinosaurs that appear in the strip from time to time, forgot to become extinct before the evolution of primates. Now, I like a good anachronism as much as the next guy, but some consistency would be nice. The soldiers in the land of Moo wear helmets made out of turtle shells, but in today's strip there's a guy wearing a visor. Is it made of rock? The pelvic bones of a dinosaur? It's hard to say--it just looks like a 99-cent plastic visor from Wal-Mart.

Why? Because apparently the cartoonists just thought this character needed a visor.

In a recent series of strips, Alley Oop and his cave-girlfriend Ooola travel as they often do to the future, courtesy of the brilliant physicist Dr Wonmug (one mug = Ein stein, get it?). Wonmug plans to use his time machine to send Alley and Ooola on a romantic trip to Paris, but just at the moment of intertemporal molecular transportation, a can of soda drops on the control panel and changes the coordinates to the 15th century. The wacky cave couple lands in Paris, all right, but when they try to exchange their dollars for euros, they're met with sneering suspicion by all the Parisians save one, a friendly hunchbacked bellringer from the nearby Cathedral of Notre Dame. Alley realizes that he's not in modern-day France at about the same time a mob of peasants accuse Ooola of being a witch. The neighborhood cleric loses no time sentencing Ooola to be burned at the stake.

Alley Oop ponders Dr Wonmug's general time-traveling warning not to change the course of history, as if the presence of a couple of homo erectus dressed in J.C. Penney casual wear hadn't already caused a few 15th-century Frenchmen to question their sanity. He disguises himself as the hunchback, rescues Ooola, and graciously lets Quasimodo take the credit.

We're left to wonder what the bloodthirsty mob did to Quasimodo after the cavepeople left.

Now, while Alley Oop is cavorting around France, Dr Wonmug is assaulted and tied up by two thugs named Heck and Marko, as part of their evil scheme to become millionaires through the illicit use of the time machine. Just what do they have in mind, you ask? The theft of the original Mona Lisa? Pillaging the gold of ancient Peru? Buying Microsoft stock at an IPO?

No, Heck and Marko plan to go back to caveman times, lure every dinosaur into a pit, and fill it in, thus creating the first do-it-yourself oil deposits. Part 2 of the plan is to return to the present and drill for the oil they "planted" lo those many years ago.

They might be criminals, but by golly they aren't above doing some hard work and getting their hands dirty.

Their plan is foiled by Alley Oop, fresh from his trip to the 15th century. And--good lord, did I just write ten paragraphs about Alley Oop? Ahem--how about that George W. Bush, huh?

More soon. And don't get me started on the Family Circus.