I enjoy electric guitars. But it’s time to face the facts: they suck. They are literally among the worst things to ever exist: ranking alongside the Hindenburg, the Spanish Inquisition, and the Sandakan death marches.
Ask ten audio engineers to vote for the worst instrument to mix, and you’ll get eleven votes for “electric guitar”, because one of them put on a fake mustache and voted twice. They are nightmarishly difficult to work with in the mixing room. Their range of frequencies swamp the mix, and they handle post-processing terribly. Other instruments have lows, mids, and highs. Electric guitars have blurf, mud, and fizz. They never, ever sound right. To fit them in a mix, usually every other instrument gets gutted and castrated.
Imagine a finished mix as a parking lot, with every instrument neatly parked in place. Electric guitars are like a Lamborghini Murcielago screeching in, swiping paint off a car, dinging another car in reverse gear, and illegally double-parking across two spots.
So why do people put up with this terrible instrument? Well, think back to the parking lot metaphor. If you saw a Lambo doing that (and its driver going unpunished) you’d think “that car belongs to the boss. Or the boss’s son. Or someone too important to fire.” This is the case for electric guitars. They’re valuable. They cannot, absolutely cannot, be fired.
Guitars are simply the most emotionally expressive instrument in the Western canon, aside from the human voice itself. The range of musical colors you can paint and moods you can evoke with them is staggering. Add guitars to a song and it instantly becomes a little more human. Remove guitars and it will instantly sound a little more dead. Add electric amplification, and guitars gain a dark Nietzschean transcendence, surpassing humanity and achieving superhumanity, speaking with a voice of metal and lightning and fire.
If guitars are tools for self-expression, Jimi Hendrix was the master toolsmith. He did things nobody had done before, things nobody had imagined possible. He bridged worlds, electrifying connections between black and white, technology and psychedelia, politics and personality, cult appeal and mainstream success.
Hendrix rewrote the book of rock, inspiring nearly everything kids would consider cool for the next forty years and counting (even modern EDM, with its grinding, distorted rhythms and pitch-bent synth lines, owes a distant debt to Hendrix.)
Much of what made him great is collected in Are You Experienced, which was cut between 1966 and 1967 in London. The US and UK editions contain different tracklistings, but all capture a band near the peak of its power, and a one-of-a-kind frontman.
Hendrix’s playing has the grungy, grotty, familiar quality of a heavily-used toothbrush, and although his licks and rhythms are derived from blues, he reshapes them into something new. “Purple Haze” is powered by a syncopated E7#9, a tonally ambiguous chord which was previously mostly heard in bebop. But “Purple Haze” is not bebop. Syncopated and driven hard against Mitch Mitchell’s drums, it sounds so hot and energizing that it smokes. When the world hears this chord, they hear Hendrix.
Songs such as “Red House” are a bit more formal, hewing to a twelve-bar blues vamp. “Hey Joe” fuses lyrical storytelling with an apocalyptic intensity that builds as the track progresses. It’s like having a train bearing down on you. Hendrix was doing the loud-quiet dynamic of grunge literally decades before grunge existed..
Hendrix’s singing is usually cited as a weak point. But limited though his vocal ability might be, I can’t imagine anyone else inhabiting these songs. Hendrix had an ability to conquer and annex the music of others. But nobody could ever do the same for him very successfully. At his best, even describing him as a musician seems wrong: he’s Zeus throwing lightning. Even his lesser cuts are unmistakably his.
Aside, from his obvious talent, Hendrix is hard to puzzle out. He was a black musician, but he wasn’t exactly a “brother”. He first learned music from Elvis Presley, loved Strauss and Wagner, had little interest in soul and R&B (which he played for money), was rejected in America and broke big in the UK, and his lyrics were partly inspired by the science fiction paperbacks he liked to read. Gather up his interests and you might assume he was a white nerd from Liverpool.
And he was a showman. This is maybe his clearest debt to the blues. Charlie Patton played slide guitar with a switchblade while holding the guitar on his lap. But Hendrix upped the ante by involving his own body, literally playing guitar with his teeth.
Which is not to portray Hendrix’s playing as masturbatory narcissism. He had politics – his electric (and electrifying) rendition of “The Star-Spangled Banner”, played at the height of the Vietnam war, is still like a slap in the face. And the cover of Electric Ladyland is shocking in ways that are hard to decode in 2021, depicting a seraglio’s worth of naked women, both black and white. This in an era where interracial relationships sometimes got separated by a rope and a tree.
He is a founding figure of popular music, in that huge swathes of modern music simply don’t decipher correctly without him. Guitarists – even wavering and bad ones – are offering you a window into their self. Jimi Hendrix did more than just give you a window – he focused his essence out onto the world like a laser beam, heating it up until it burned. The fire has not yet died.
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Fire a .22 round, and a casing will go plink on the ground. If you pick up this casing, clean it, crimp it, fill it with powder, seat a new primer and bullet, it will be as good as new.
But when you fire and reload the same casing ten or twenty times, it will eventually not be be good as new. The metal becomes embrittled, prone to cracking and spalling; the walls will be thin, fluxed outward by temperature and pressure; the primer might no longer sit properly; and it will be liable to misfire. There’s variability both in material – in general, brass casings handle repeated firing better than steel or aluminum ones – and in individual casings, but eventually metallurgy will distort your casing past the point of no return. You can never unfire a bullet.
Gunfire changes bullets. It also changes the men firing them. It’s a common pop culture conceit that war irreversibly transforms men – hauls them across an event horizon to sub- or super-humanity. Veterans return to their families and they’re not the same: they quiver, and twitch, are prone to explosive anger and paralyzing fear. Audy Murphy is the US Army’s greatest war hero, credited with 240 kills by one account. Yet he returned from the war a post-traumatic stress case who slept with a gun under his pistol – a gun that he’d use to threaten and terrorize his first wife. But for God’s grace, his kill count would be 241.
Full Metal Jacket is a latter-day Kubrick film about the above transformation. It depicts the lives of several soldiers (or aspirant soldiers) subjected to the furnace of the Vietnam war. Some crack. Others “survive”, but only in biological terms, and not without jettisoning parts of their humanity. All seem to have lost something.
It’s half of a great movie. That’s not bad: most films are zero percent great movie. But it’s impossible not to watch it without feeling some regret: Full Metal Jacket ends up being much smaller than its shadow. I wish it was great all the way through.
Here’s the thing: nearly everyone agrees which half of Full Metal Jacket is good. The boot camp scenes at the start – focusing on the relationship between a bullying drill sergeant and a fat, clumsy recruit – are as compelling as anything ever Kubrick put to film. They’re hilarious, cringeworthy, raw, and so thematically satisfying that when they end, it feels like the movie ends. It’s always a surprise to me when it doesn’t.
R Lee Ermey is fantastic, and carries the movie on his shoulders. He struts up and down a line of terrified recruits like a demonic rooster, reeling off pungently vile insults like stanzas of metered poetry. I’ve heard veterans describe boot camp as “the funniest place you’re not allowed to laugh”, and I kept thinking about that as I saw Ermey say stuff like “unorganized, grab-asstic pieces of amphibian shit” and “slimy little Communist shit twinkle-toed cocksuckers“, ready to dump all the shit in the sky upon the first private to crack a smile.
How accurate is this? I remember a discussion on IMDB’s defunct comments bored – half the vets were saying “This is fantasy” and the rest were saying “This was my boot camp experience, exactly.”
Certain things seem right, based on what I’ve heard from friends who’ve served. Dumping a recruit’s entire kit all over the floor because one little thing isn’t squared away? That happens. Punishing an entire class for one recruit’s screw-up? That, too. Ermey’s behavior has a cruel kind of logic behind it. He’s weeding out “non-hackers”. If you’re going to fail, you’d better fail in Parris Island, rather than in the field, when lives are on the line.
Vincent D’Onofrio also inhabits his role well: that of a helpless wide-eyed frog getting smashed to pulp by a baseball bat. After weeks of abuse, his eyes start changing, and the drill instructor thinks he’s finally taking instruction. Movie viewers, of course, are aware of dramatic arcs and might guess that something else is coming.
Later, when the protagonist Joker graduates boot camp and goes to Vietnam, the movie sort of loses the plot. It grinds out some new ideas and characters, but they’re not strongly developed. In the IMDB page, the top-voted quotations are overwhelmingly from the early scenes. Down the bottom you’ve got lines spoken in Vietnam by guys I don’t even remember being in the movie.
These scenes are tonally inconsistent. The part where Joker has to write propaganda (“we have a new directive from M.A.F. on this! In the future, in place of “search and destroy,” substitute the phrase “sweep and clear”!) is kind of funny, in a Dr Strangelove way. But the movie as a whole is not satire, and this scene doesn’t play nice with the darker stuff at the end of the film, which in turn doesn’t play well with a soldier having his wallet stolen by a wacky karate-chopping Vietnamese street gang.
A lot has been written about Vietnam, and the way it reflects the final falling away of Clauswitzian notions of war. No more battle lines. Your enemies dress like civilians. Your fellow soldiers behave barbarously. Up is down and left is right. You just want to escape, but even when you do, the war follows you home, haunting you. What’s it all for?
Kubrick’s film ends up confused, muddled, and existing just to exist. The perfect reflection of the Vietnam war, in other words.
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The BFG is a masterly masterwork of masterism, sublime in every way. The prose glides like a lubed-up manatee sliding face-first into a woodchipper. The drama makes my heart race like a 3.9 gHz Ryzen 7 3800x overclocked to 4.0 gHz for faster frame-to-screen time. The plot clicks like a Kalahari Bushman’s tongue pronouncing the word “!Xóõ”. It’s as re-readable as an affidavit when you’re a lawyer and the jury’s packed with half-deaf amnesiacs and you’re billing the client $800 an hour.
Also, it’s the only book that caters to my specific fetish: elderly, 24-foot tall men farting on people.
For a few moments, the Big Friendly Giant stood quite still, and a look of absolute ecstasy began to spread over his long wrinkly face. Then suddenly the heavens opened and he let fly with a series of the loudest and rudest noises Sophie had ever heard in her life. They reverberated around the walls of the cave like thunder and the glass jars rattled on their shelves. But most astonishing of all, the force of the explosions actually lifted the enormous giant clear off his feet, like a rocket.
Sometimes I have this dream, you see. The BFG is climbing through my bedroom window, bearing his horn. There’s a mischievous twinkle in his eye. You can’t tell anyone, the twinkle says. This is our little secret. I hear his stomach gurgling, and it seems to synchronize with my own blood thundering in my ears as he unbuttons his bum-flap, two feet from my face, and…
…I’m oversharing. Sorry. My therapist tells me that I overshare. But how can I not? There’s SO MUCH left to tell…
I hope the BFG doesn’t get cancelled, because he’s one of Roald Dahl’s most politically progressive characters. He’s vegetarian. He’s pacifist. He’s even anti-capitalist (turning down a lucrative zoo gig, because he knows he would be exploited).
Yes, I know he’s had problematic moments – he participates in human trafficking, is party to an imperialist invasion, and says that Greek people taste bad – but cut him a break. Nobody’s perfect, and he’s trying his best. When Trump was elected he would have been out marching in the street, wearing a pussyhat the size of a bumbershoot. He would have #FeltTheBern. He would have put a black square on his Instagram. He would have bullied a problematic YA author to suicide.
I’m curious, why did the BFG become so sensitive and so unlike the other giants?
Maybe it has to do with his height. As I’ve mentioned, he’s 24 feet tall. This is small for a giant – the others are described as being 50 feet tall – and maybe this contributed to the development of a aesthetic sense.
Most of the beautiful things in nature are small, and when you’re large, you tend not to see them. For example, the 24 foot tall BFG would see roses 4x smaller than we do. The 50 foot Bloodbottler would see them 8x smaller. They’d just be tiny specks of color. He’d have to squint to see its petals, and he certainly wouldn’t be able to smell its scent. It’s a sad life, and I rather feel for the Bloodbottler.
It makes you wonder how much we’re missing out on by being as big as we are. Sand is actually quite pretty under a microscope. Due to our size, we just see a gritty, coarse gray, all the colors blending together and cancelling out. But imagine being a 5 millimeter human, wandering through a sea of beautiful jewels. Perhaps there’s a diatom squirming between the grains. You could sling a leash around it, and have a diatom for a pet. Wouldn’t that be awesome?
Topic shift: how much food do giants eat?
According to the BFG, they each devour a couple of humans every night.
‘That means,’ said Sophie, ‘that somewhere in the world, every single night, nine wretched people get carried away and eaten alive.’
‘More,’ said the BFG. ‘It is all depending, you see, on how big the human beans is. Japanese beans is very small, so a giant will need to gobble up about six Japanese before he is feeling full up. Others like the Norway people and the Yankee-Doodles is ever so much bigger and usually two or three of those makes a good tuck-in.’
Is this a realistic caloric intake? Assuming the average man is 6ft tall and weighs 200lb, how many people would a 50 foot tall giant need to eat?
First, let’s assume the giants are humans scaled up by 8x. A 6ft/200lb man has a basal metabolic rate of 2226, and eats 2,671 calories a day (if you’re curious, the 20% difference is caused by thermal inefficiency – your stomach doesn’t perfectly convert food into energy, which would break the second law of thermodynamics.)
Klieber’s Law states that the metabolic rate of a endothermic homeotherm (such as a giant) scales as M^3/4, where M is mass. Also, remember that mass increases as a cube of length, meaning an 8x man would weigh 102,400lb (8^3*200), for a 512x increase in overall mass. 512^3/4 = 107.63, so the giants have a BMR of 239584.38 (2226 * 107.63), and need 287,501.256 calories per day (239584.38 * 1.2).
The human body contains 130,000 calories (according to someone on Quora who’s sums I didn’t double-check), meaning the BFG’s estimate of 2-3 large humans per giant is…
…dead on the money. I was surprised. How much did Roald Dahl know of giant eating habits?
But there are sadly some scientific issues with the book. An egregious example: 24 foot men can’t fly by farting. More interesting is the notion that humans taste different depending on where they come from.
‘But do these disgusting giants go to every single country in the world?’ Sophie asked.
‘All countries excepting Greece is getting visited some time or another,’ the BFG answered. ‘The country which a giant visits is depending on how he is feeling. If it is very warm weather and a giant is feeling as hot as a sizzlepan, he will probably go galloping far up to the frisby north to get himself an Esquimo or two to cool him down. A nice fat Esquimo to a giant is like a lovely ice-cream lolly to you.’
‘I’ll take your word for it,’ Sophie said.
‘And then again, if it is a frosty night and the giant is fridging with cold, he will probably point his nose towards the swultering hotlands to guzzle a few Hottentots to warm him up.’
‘How perfectly horrible,’ Sophie said.
‘Nothing hots a cold giant up like a hot Hottentot,’ the BFG said.
Clearly, the giants are falling prey to the placebo effect.
In Frédéric Brochet’s infamous 2001 wine study, wine tasters were unable to distinguish between red wine and white wine that had been dyed to look red. Suggestion is a powerful thing. Eskimos live in a cold place, so the BFG expects them to taste cold. Wales sounds like the word whales, so the BFG expects Welsh people to have a fishy taste. He’s not to blame. He’s a prisoner of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. I wonder if the snozzcumbers really do taste bad, or if the BFG has just been primed to assume a bad taste because of their disgusting name.
Lastly, the giants are made of a weirdly light substance.
In Quentin Blake’s illustrations, we see captured giants being airlifted by the British RAF (this brutal and unprovoked attack on a sovereign country would later be condemned by the International Court of Justice, and played an important role in Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party being voted out in the 1990 election. They don’t show you that part in the book.)
From the shape, these helicopters appear to be the Westland Sea King, which has an unloaded weight of 6,387kg and a maximum takeoff weight of 9,707kg. So the giants, incredibly, weigh less than four metric tons, not the 46 tons I calculated above. It’s very odd.
Either that or the British RAF maintains a fleet of mega-sized Sea Kings, just in case such an event occurs. I’m going to bed. Perhaps I’ll have the dream again. I’ll keep you posted. xox
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