It has long been evident that Garfield only has value as a deconstruction of itself. Jazz/R&B label GRP Records accidentally discovered this in 1991 when they released Am I Cool Or What?, the first ever Garfield concept album. They released it on both cassette and CD, for a double dose of Garfield madness! “Garfield concept album” sounds like a fake 4chan shitpost like Lolishit or MoonMan. Incredibly, it is a real product that exists and can be bought for money.

You might suspect that the Garfield mythos cannot support a full-blown concept album. The character isn’t exactly Ziggy Stardust: Garfield is to comics what “Jim Davis” is to names, a desolate TS Eliot wasteland of unfettered blandness. I was a Garfield fan for ten seconds in 1997 because it replaced a comic I hated (Cathy) in the Sunday paper. Then I actually read it and realized I’d cured a toenail disease with an amputation. It was the least funny thing I had ever seen. You can’t even use it as lavatory paper, because any paper containing Garfield already has shit on it by definition.

Want to know why Garfield sucks? It’s often asserted[1]once, by a guy on Quora that this is the all-time funniest Garfield strip…

…you’ll notice that Garfield is pointless. Not only could he be removed without affecting the gag, he actually makes the joke worse by being there. Why is he reacting in disappointment? Who’s excited to hear a sponsored message? It’s idiotic peabrained nonsense, even within its own universe.

The true load-bearing wall of Garfield is Jon Arbuckle, whose preening insecurity is at least relatable. Garfield is just a blob. Take Jon out of Garfield and the comic collapses into a black hole: take Garfield out of Garfield and it becomes the same or funnier.

What can you do with a character so bland? What can’t you do? GRP’s pitch meeting must have gone like this:

“Our market research team has identified four traits with the core Garfield brand: he’s lazy, he’s fat, he eats lasagne, and he hates Mondays. If we took each of those traits and wrote a song about it we’d have almost 50% of 1/2 of a real, honest to God album! Ka-ching! This is an even better idea than our Samuel ‘Screech’ Powers prog-rock suite!”

Obviously they had to pad it out some. Neither “I Love It When I’m Naughty” and “Next to You I’m Even Better” have anything to do with Garfield. I think they were included because they were written by a person called Catte Adams, by which standard Cat Stevens, Jon Bon Jovi, and One Direction should be on here. You know…OD? Odie? Mark my words, if Jim Davis had KWALITY JOKES like that the comic would be cooking with gas.

The music isn’t an afterthought: that would imply thinking at all was involved. It’s very cheesy and cheap, with sampled drums that remove any life the music might have had. It doesn’t sound close to jazz, it’s more like New Kids On The Block than anything. “Shake Your Paw” has a stuttered horn sample (think “Owner of a Lonely Heart” by Yes) but that’s the only musical point of interest I can recall.

What’s amazing is that they recruited a stable of R&B/soul greats to make this turd. BB King. The Temptations. Natalie Cole. Just how broke were they? That leads to a fascinating possibility: with the demise of the music industry, there has never been a better time to recruit legendary musicians for cheap. Who’s with me? The world must hear Am I Cool Or What? II.



1 once, by a guy on Quora
No Comments »

The Pixies are alt-rock’s dark matter: invisible, but they bend the universe around them. The 90s are inconceivable without them. They laid the founding stones for Seattle grunge, 3rd wave punk, 90s glam revival, and indie rock. One thing they didn’t lay the founding stones for was their own careers. Other bands broke big. The Pixies just broke up.

“Why didn’t the Pixies become more famous?” was once a popular column brief in the alternative press. Too early? Too weird? Not enough MTV videos? Wrong place? Singer too fat? Bassist too lady? Whatever the truth, their gold and platinum certifications were awarded long after they broke up, after an unpaid PR campaign on their behalf by the likes of Kurt Cobain and David Bowie. The Pixies are to Gen X what the Velvet Underground were to baby boomers: more famous as musical corpses than they ever were as a living, active band.

On their records they merged into a wall of sound with a single performer sometimes punching through, perhaps one of Joey Santiago’s fierce, singing leads, or Black Francis squalling bloodily, like a thundercloud made of dripping meat. Their lyrics were minimalistic and filmic, owing more to visual language more than prose. Other bands wrote songs about being sad: the Pixies wrote about having a broken face. They approached subject matter obliquely and orthagonally: if they were a chess piece, it would be the knight. Some Pixies songs make you feel alienated. Others conferred a sense of cosmic understanding. Their best songs made you feel both things at the same time.

In 2003, rumors emerged that the Pixies would soon reunite. The next year, a string of sold-out shows were announced. loudQUIETloud is Matthew Galkin’s 2006 documentary of their performances and some of the circumstances leading up to it.

Documentaries need storylines, and “legendary band reforming” has one that writes itself. Are the Pixies too old? Can lightning strike twice? Do they still have “it”? Are they still relevant in a world that’s changed beyond recognition (in 2003, “alt rock” now meant Evanescence, Linkin Park, and Nickelback)? Also, why do it at all, when there’s ample evidence that they don’t particularly want to?

Joey Santiago comes up with a funny name for the tour: The Pixies Sell Out. Or it would be funny if it was ironic. It’s clear in the film’s first few minutes that the Pixies reunited mostly because of money.

Francis’s solo act (can we admit that The Catholics was his solo act?) was stuck in a rut. Release an album on some indie label, get a 6/10 from a Pitchfork nerd who raves about how cool the Pixies were, make a pittance touring bowling alleys and phone booths, repeat. Santiago and Lowery never even had a rut to get stuck in: their faces hold the sullen desperation of Oliver Twist asking for more gruel. Kim Deal had arguably weathered the post-Pixies years the best (“Cannonball” was the crossover MTV smash her former band had never had), but she was fresh out of rehab, and also had the commercial failure of the third Breeders’ album hanging over her head.

Lowery is blunt about the situation. He states that although royalties from the Pixies had more or less supported him through the nineties, by 2004 this was no longer true. Four years previously the domain was registered by a NEU student[1]At Boston, the Pixies’ hometown called Sean Parker, and suddenly the cool thing to do with music was not pay for it. The industry began collapsing. This is the reason why every venerable rock act was (and still is) touring like devils into their 60s and 70s. Live music became the backbone of the industry: you can’t download a band into your living room on Napster. I regard Sean Parker, who can’t play a note, as one of the most important figures in 21st century music, scarcely less significant than Guglielmo Marconi.

Continuing the legacy of the Pixies is a daunting task on the face of things. We see Black Francis looking terrified, a man nerving himself up for a 10,000 ft skydive. He repeats affirmations on a couch. “I can do it! People like me! I’m cute!” (Two out of three isn’t bad.) We also see Kim fretting (in multiple senses) that she’ll biff notes and look like an aging fraud on stage.

“Why are they back?” is one question. “Why did they split?” is another, and the film never addresses it, except at slant angles.

The breakup of the Pixies is another of their mysteries. “Francis and Kim were fighting” is the usual non-explanation given. But then why did Santiago and Lowery leave? Part of a good documentary is establishing the leads as characters. Is Black Francis a chill, laid-back teddy bear? Or a slightly sinister, controlling figure? The film never comes down on side or the other, allowing the viewer to make up their own mind. But as Francis himself said, where is my mind?

We sense the rifts between Francis and Kim, which don’t seem to have closed with time. Kim rides on a separate bus to the others, while working on material for a new Breeders album. There could be ample reasons for this (ranging from “her desire to stay sober” to “her commitments to her sister” to “she would rather give herself a cervical exam with a trench shovel than ride on a bus with Black Francis”) but the film doesn’t really settle the issue. Will there be new Pixies music? Francis seems hostile to the idea. He’d rather talk about his next solo album. When Kim is asked the same question, she responds with “you’re demanding answers to questions that have no answers.” (Sadly, an answer finally came in 2014, when the Kimless Indie Cindy hit a remainder bin near you. It got a 2.5/10 from Pitchfork, which doesn’t even seem possible.)

The documentary’s title is a reference to the infamous loud/quiet songwriting mode of alt-rock, where a soft verse is contrasted with an explosive chorus (“Smells Like Teen Spirit” being a canonical example). But the style here is more quietQUIETquiet. It’s cleanly shot and well-directed, but you still need to listen hard to gain any insight on the Pixies…same as ever, in other words.

Mid-tour, we see Lowery going on a bizarre rant in Kim’s dressing room. Soon after, the band falls apart during “Something Against You”, with Lowery apparently having no idea what song he’s playing. He claims that he couldn’t hear the stage monitors, but Santiago believes he was on drugs. Kim and her sister are visibly having trouble themselves, with terse conversations about whether they can stay dry during a nine-day stopover in NYC.

There are very few scenes of the Pixies interacting with each other, and it always has a weird vibe. Their chemistry is awkward and full of fake laughter. They’re trying to be friends, but there was a reason this band stopped working out in 1993, and probably most of those reasons still exist. We wonder if they’d even want to be in the same room if the checks stopped clearing.

There are also happy times. Moments when the band clicks on stage. Scenes of Santiago and Francis hanging out with their families. The reactions of fans is incredible to behold – however cynical the Pixies reunion might seem – the elation it produced was real. The documentary ends with a Kim Deal superfan being inspired to pick up the bass guitar herself. The Pixies are dark matter, but there’s light matter in the universe, too.

But the stakes in this reunion seem so low. The Pixies are selling out shows…but they’re playing clubs and theaters, not arenas. Fans swarm them for autographs…but it’s ten or twenty people, max. The Pixies weren’t that big in the 80s and they’re no bigger now, even after their innovations have percolated throughout all of mainstream rock. These guys are scrapping hard, not to regain a seat on rock’s throne, but to obtain a nine-to-five income. But is there anything more quintessentially alt-rock?


1 At Boston, the Pixies’ hometown
No Comments »

Horror novels have a shelf life of forever or five years, whichever comes first. Kathe Koja’s first novel The Cipher was published in 1991, was critically acclaimed as a major work of the genre, and then promptly went out of print for 31 years.

It has a sharp premise. Failed poet Nicholas (and his codependent girlfriend Nakota) find a black hole under their apartment. They begin dropping things into the hole on a string. Bugs grotesquely mutate into chitinous aberrations. A dead mouse turns into a Jurassic horror with claws twice the length of its feet. Then they lower a camera down into the hole…

The Cipher belongs to the micro-genre of “hole fiction”, which includes Stephen King’s From a Buick 8, and Junji Ito’s The Enigma of Amigara Fault, and others I can’t recall. A fracture appears in reality; one that cannot be understood, only experienced. Things transform when they pass through it. The “holes” in these books are never actually holes, they’re a metaphor for some writerly stalking horse (the unexplainable, death, and so on). Early on, Nakota makes the observation that the Funhole (as they call it) only becomes active when Nicholas is around it. Why would this be true? What’s special about him?

Koja’s prose is striking. Her patented “kill all verbs” style shatters sentences into oblique, slanted observations, which collectively pile up into scenes, action, etc. Death by a thousand frags.

We waited quite a while, there in the dark, my back against the locked door, Nakota for once at my side. Her scent was higher, her breath never slowed; she tried to smoke but I told her no, not in that airless firetrap, firm whisper, as firm as I ever got with her anyway, and she gave in. The insects jumbled, up and down, fighting the barrier they couldn’t see, then, “Look,” her sharp whisper but I was looking already, staring, watching as the bugs, one by one, began to drop, dying, to the floor of the jar, to whir in minute contortions, to, oh Jesus, to change: an extra pair of wings, a spare head, two spare heads, colors beyond the real, Nakota was breathing like a steam engine, I heard that hoarseness in my ear, smelled her hot stale-cigarette breath, saw a roach grow legs like a spider’s, saw a dragonfly split down the middle and turn into something else that was no kind of insect at all.

Koja, more than any author I’ve read, writes the way people see. We perceive vision as continuous, but it’s actually made up of thousands of micro-adjustments called “sacchades”. We flick from thing to thing, and gradually a picture of our surroundings emerges. It seems instantaneous, but it’s more like a painter’s process. One brushstroke. Two brushstrokes. The Cipher’s style is an effective evocation of this process.

The setting’s a grimy urban environment, with dirty snow, broken central heating units, rust, and dying video stores. Koja’s big on art in all its forms, and stuff like cinema and sculpture appear in the story, to varying impact.

Not all the story choices work, and The Cipher ends up being more good than great. After some fantastic early scenes, the momentum falters. A couple of new characters get added who don’t seem particularly relevant but succeed in padding the book out for another 100+ pages. The problem with elegant concepts is that it’s hard to get a novel out of them. The Cipher would have hit harder as a novella.

The shocks (which are initially powerful) become increasingly broad and heavy handed, and verge on comical at a point. There’s scenes in the book that look like they’re from Chucky. They don’t ruin the book, but a more subtle approach would have been nice.

Koja’s later work is more confident. Bad Brains shows the umbilicus chaining artistic ambition to madness (and vice versa). Skin documents a world of metal and gears where carbon-based lifeforms must tread with caution. But The Cipher has its own charms: it’s very visual for a book, and would work well as a movie. Ironically, because Nicholas is doomed from the moment he begins filming the Funhole.

No Comments »