Tag Archives: U2

With a Song in My Heart: Z is for…

“Zooropa” – U2, 1993.

Here we are on Day 26 with our final installment, and as expected it’s a tad bittersweet.  While I’ve relished the challenge of delving into my past as scored with specific pieces of music and testing my capacity for both memoir and music journalism, and could likely go on with several more, Z is as good a place as any to stop, before the formula grows stale and the stories tedious.  The question arises, naturally, of what to do next, after these ~25,000 words in 30 days have been relegated to the archive of projects past.  I might borrow a line from the subject of today’s entry and go away and dream it all up again.  We’ll see.  That’s a decision for May 1st.  Before I go on, though, I want to send a special shout out to Joanne Blaikie of Writeaway, who’s been a challenge partner and has provided a great deal of support and encouragement along the way.  The subject of Joanne’s A to Z challenge has been an encyclopedic journey through her fantasy trilogy Prophecy of Innocence and it’s been a delight to see the fruits of her wonderful imagination revealed one post at a time.

It is of writing, in fact, that the final post in my series speaks.  I’ve always written to a lot of U2, generally from The Unforgettable Fire onwards (their first three albums are a little too raw and distracting when you’re trying to sink into a moment).  The Edge’s trippy, dreamy guitar work in the Eno period has ever been a proper Pied Piper leading me into that headspace wellspring from whence the words come.  “Zooropa,” the title track from their 1993 album, is a headspace all its own.  About ten years ago, when I was hardcore first drafting what would become – after being extracted from the bloated behemoth of another work, reimagined, rethought, revised, abandoned for eight years while I sorted out my life, rescued from oblivion, chopped in three and re-revised again – my first novel (which, described that way, sounds like the procedure Vogons have to follow to rescue their grandmothers from the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast of Traal), I used “Zooropa” to wake myself up in the mornings I had set aside to work on it.  It is a great alarm song – rather than waking you with a start, the introduction crescendoes slowly from almost nothing, adding in a gentle piano arpeggio before the guitar asserts itself and Bono starts singing.  There’s a line in it too that is a terrific mantra for writers:  “I have no compass, and I have no map.  And I have no reasons, no reasons to get back.”  Even those of us who work from intricate outlines have to admit that the excitement in the writing process is losing ourselves in the story and finding out where it goes, the unexpected corners that are the reward for the blood-and-sweat agony of advancing the narrative ever further.  And once you start, you don’t want to stop, even if you’re not entirely sure where you’re going.  Uncertainty, as Bono suggests in “Zooropa,” can be a guiding light.

Zooropa the album was recorded during a break between legs of U2’s Zoo TV tour in 1992-93, a record-breaking, MTV-inspired extravaganza whose excesses came to characterize the band that U2 would become after leaving behind the occasionally insufferable earnestness of their 80’s work.  While traveling the world promoting Achtung Baby, U2 learned how to take the piss out of themselves and embrace the contradictions of rock stardom.  Energized by this new vibe, the band chose to funnel the outpouring of creativity into a new album rather than lounging about their mansions for four months waiting to go out on the road again.  The result was somewhat uneven, with achingly beautiful numbers like “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)” sitting uneasily next to throwaways like “Babyface” and the miscasting of Johnny Cash on lead vocals for “The Wanderer,” without the unifying theme so obvious on the previous LP.  We’ve probably each had an occasion where something sparks our idea generator and we rush to empty our braingasms through the nearest writing implement, only to look back on the result the next day and question the apparent temporary loss of sanity.  The blog challenge doesn’t give you that opportunity for reflection, you have to publish and move on to the next one, keep feeding the beast.  When I saw U2 perform live on their last tour, I don’t think they did a single song from Zooropa.  What was good enough to win the Best Alternative Album Grammy for 1993 apparently doesn’t rate a mention almost twenty years later.  I may look back on this series from the perch of a few years’ distance and wish I could rewrite every single one from scratch.  It isn’t ego, it’s the nature of the business, and we are always our own harshest critics.  One wonders sometimes why we choose such a masochistic vocation.  But it’s because we were born this way.  We have to do this.  “Choice” never enters into it.

The last line in “Zooropa” is “dream out loud.”  Back then it was the perfect message with which to kick off a daily explosion of new words.  What is writing, anyway, but dreaming out loud?  Transforming wild thoughts and secret longings through the greatest medium available to facilitate the connection of one person to a community of our common humanity.  Ever since the first English teacher handed me a pencil and a sheet of lined paper and asked me to tell her in a proper paragraph about what I did over the weekend, I’ve been afflicted with the compulsion to assemble words into opinions, parables, images, plots and plain old goofery, and share them with others.  It’s been almost thirty-five years of this now and I can’t kick the habit.  Success, or lack thereof, isn’t part of the equation.  Even if no one was reading this I’d probably still be doing it.  I suspect many of my readers who are themselves writers feel the same.  Recognition is icing.  The true reward is a story well told.  And for those times when we find ourselves mired in the muck, the right music can help us find the way out, better than a compass and a map.

So here’s to dreaming out loud, with songs in our hearts, yesterday, today and all the tomorrows to come.  Thanks for reading.

With a Song in My Heart: E is for…

“Even Better Than the Real Thing” – U2, 1992.

I can kick this post off by reassuring readers that it won’t be quite as heavy as yesterday’s.  Instead we’ll just offer a few paragraphs about one of my favorite bands, one with whom I have savored and at times rued a two-decade-long love/huh? relationship.  (You’ll also note that I appear to be constitutionally prohibited from in-depth appreciation of bands from my own side of the Atlantic.)  U2 first came to my attention in the mid-early-80’s when they were transitioning away raw, angry Irish proto-punk into more mature, textured material that wasn’t all allegorical retellings of the Troubles. I can say that now that my vocabulary has developed substantially; back then it was only a matter of taking the slightest interest in the Unforgettable Fire poster on my cousin Brad’s bedroom wall.  Even when their legendary Joshua Tree album dropped a few years later they didn’t really register for me.  They seemed too serious, too dire, too preachy.  What is interesting to me now, as a devoted fan, is going back and realizing just how many of Bono’s lyrics are intended to be about God, but that like the best pieces of art (or religious texts, as it were), you can interpret them to mean, or be about, whatever or whomever you want.

What do U2’s songs mean to me?  Well, let’s go back and talk a bit about how I finally got into them.

1997 for U2 brought the release of Pop, what is probably their most polarizing album, setting aside the art-for-art’s-sake Passengers misfire.  (Given the aforementioned Christian focus of Bono’s lyrics you could assign a double meaning to the title of this one as well:  Pop – Poppa – Father – God.)  The lead single was “Discotheque,” a foray into 90’s club music, featuring an appropriately cheesy video which had Bono and company donning the garb of the Village People and performing an easily mimicked hip-thrusting dance.  My playlist had grown stale and I was hungering for something fresh, and this fit the bill.  For once, those dour Irish dudes seemed like they were having some fun, and I could get into this.  The trouble was the rest of the album wasn’t so great.  Aside from one beautiful standout (“Gone,” which should have been a single but wasn’t for whatever reason), it remains a hard-to-listen-to mishmash of misbegotten experiments and half-finished ideas.  But no matter, the fish had bitten into the hook and I began to mine their back catalogue.  That’s when I found Achtung Baby.

I’ll happily argue with anyone who doesn’t think it remains their best album by a mile.  Almost like a greatest hits collection, there isn’t a single song on there that can’t stand up to years of replays.  In rock journalist Bill Flanagan’s terrific book U2 At The End of The World, the band talks about how the album took much of its inspiration from Nighttown in James Joyce’s Ulysses, and as such follows a wanderer who, seduced by more hip-thrusting rhythms, descends into an orgiastic abyss,  confronts his soul and winds up spent and wrecked in the damp gutter as the dawn finally begins to break.  Backed at every harrowing step, of course, by some simply marvelous tunes.  Now I don’t remember enough of what I read of Ulysses (i.e. almost nothing) to draw all the connections for you, but listening to Achtung Baby uninterrupted, start to finish, does feel like an odyssey of sorts, and you do find yourself feeling a bit worn as the closing track “Love is Blindness” fades away, but the journey’s been worth it.

So it’s ’97, I’m spinning Achtung Baby and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” nonstop, and driving my friends bonkers by being the worst version of a U2 n00b (U200b?) you can imagine, prattling on as if I’d discovered them.  “Did you guys know that Bono’s real name is Paul Hewson?  Did you guys know that the first time Axl Rose heard ‘One’ it made him cry?  Did you guys know that they used to be called Feedback?  Did you guys know…” and so on and so forth.  Looking back on it even I would have told myself to shut up.  But when you’ve found something that fills a void you weren’t sure was even there, your first instinct is to share the news far and wide, and be incredulous that not everyone else mirrors your admittedly insufferable enthusiasm.

U2 have released six albums and a couple of compilations since Achtung Baby, and what keeps me buying the new ones even though none have lived up to its standard, is the idea that U2 remain seekers and questioners.  They subscribe to the concept that faith unchallenged is not true faith, and are ever reinventing themselves and their sound to pursue the glaringly contradictory aim of a brutally necessary yet realistically unachievable goal:  solving What It’s All About.  However, this approach can test the patience of those fans who only want to hear the old Joshua Tree classics reinterpreted with some new guitar licks (i.e., The Rolling Stones Career Plan, patent pending.)  When you’re trying for that elusive objective as well, your heart is more forgiving of the missteps no matter how awkward or brash – especially since theirs tend to sound much better.  U2 have been called pretentious, phony, egotistical, preachy, hypocritical and even clueless, but they’ve never been accused of being boring.  Their ability to surprise is like that of life itself – built in the DNA.  Though they may never again equal the achievement that is Achtung Baby, their choice to not rest on those laurels is an admirable one.  Go away and dream it all up again, as Bono once said.  What is even better than the real thing?  Knowing that the questions, and the choice to pursue those questions, are sometimes more valuable than the answers.

A best guess approach to picking the lesser known 2014 Oscar winners

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Remember when movies were cheap?  Like, not-bank-breaking-to-see-one-a-week cheap?  It wasn’t that long ago that you could wander into your local multiplex without having to fork over the proverbial arm and leg for your ticket and bag of popcorn, or slice of pizza.  My friends and I used to try to venture out weekly, which was occasionally rough going during those dry months when the studios were dumping their guaranteed flops into the rolling-tumbleweed timeslots said dreck was similarly guaranteed to disappear quietly within, while doing the least damage to their reputations as producers of quality entertainment.  But it also meant you had a better than average shot of seeing all the movies that were up for awards contention.

Having said that, seeing the movies didn’t mean you were in any better position to judge whether or not they would win awards.  There are distinct, often inexplicable differences between the mind of the critic, the average viewer, and the award voter.  And what wins is a matter not necessarily of quality, but of an unfathomable brew of popularity, body of work, perceived merit and good old fashioned ad campaigns.  In the end the whole affair is about money anyway – someone did a calculation once where they figured out the percentage by which an Oscar win would boost a movie’s box office revenue or an actor’s asking price, with the typical caveat that in Hollywood, there is no such thing as an absolute:  F. Murray Abraham certainly isn’t pulling in $20 million a picture.

So if you’re trying to win your office Oscar pool, what do you do?  You read umpteen columns like this one, both professional and amateur, try to get a general sense of the trends, and toss your darts accordingly.  I’ll go through each category in brief and offer my own uninformed thoughts and guidelines.  You’ll note that as per the title of the post I’m staying away from the big ones like Actor, Actress and Picture, and focusing instead on the technical and “minor” categories, because a) I’m curmudgeonly that way and b) everyone else is doing posts about the big ones, so I’m standing up for the little guy.  You know, like Rob Ford says he does.

Animated Feature Film

Nominees:  The Croods, Despicable Me 2, Ernest & Celestine, Frozen, The Wind Rises

Frozen is rightly being celebrated as Disney’s return to the form of its Renaissance era after years struggling in the shadow of Pixar, and it deserves every accolade it gets.  It doesn’t matter how highly regarded The Wind Rises’ director Hayao Miyazaki may be, nor even that he announced it would be his final film – the Academy will not stand idly by and let the wild success of Frozen go unacknowledged.  The other three contenders may have their own individual merits, but they had the misfortune of being nominated in Frozen‘s year.

Cinematography

Nominees:  The Grandmaster, Gravity, Inside Llewyn Davis, Nebraska, Prisoners

There are two schools of thinking here.  The Academy tends to prefer movies that are shot outside as nature is harder to light than a soundstage.  They also like slow-paced films where the shots look like paintings.  However, they bend the rule when it comes to mind-blowing images that have never been seen before, which is why Inception won this award in 2010.  One thing mentioned universally in reviews of Gravity was that it made you feel like you really were in space.  The cinematography was one of the biggest components of that so this one would be my pick.

Costume Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, The Grandmaster, The Great Gatsby, The Invisible Woman, 12 Years a Slave

Anyone who remembers Priscilla, Queen of the Desert‘s designer Lizzie Gardner picking up her award in a dress made of AmEx Gold Cards will note that award-winning costume design is all about flash over substance, so the sequins and dazzle of The Great Gatsby are the odds-on favorite over the drab outfits of 12 Years a Slave or the coked-out American Hustle suits.

Documentary Feature

Nominees:  The Act of Killing, Cutie and the Boxer, Dirty Wars, The Square, 20 Feet from Stardom

The rule for documentaries has always been, “pick the one about the Holocaust.”  Absent that, any documentary about war, death or the general inhumanity of man is the strongest contender, although the Academy does have a soft spot for movies about entertainers or the entertainment industry in general.  20 Feet from Stardom could be the dark horse, as it’s about backup singers.  However, you have The Act of Killing about mass murder in Indonesia, Dirty Wars about America’s dark foreign policy or The Square about the Egyptian uprising of 2011.  Go with The Act of Killing.

Documentary Short Subject

Nominees:  CaveDigger, Facing Fear, Karama Has No Walls, The Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Prison Terminal: The Last Days of Private Jack Hall

Otherwise known as the “your guess is as good as mine” category.  The latter is about a man in his 80’s dying in a prison, so given the goodwill shown towards hopeful prison movies like The Green Mile and The Shawshank Redemption in the past, I’d lean towards it.

Film Editing

Nominees:  American Hustle, Captain Phillips, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, 12 Years a Slave

Editing is always a tricky category to gauge in that the best editing is the kind you don’t notice, however, if the film is edited in a particularly audacious and in-your-face manner, it may get awarded simply for calling attention to itself.  Absent that whatever wins Best Picture wins Best Editing, so this one would be between 12 Years a Slave and Gravity.  I would favor Gravity again because even in the trailers and clips that you’ve seen, editing is up front.

Foreign Language Film

Nominees:  The Broken Circle Breakdown (Belgium), The Great Beauty (Italy), The Hunt (Denmark), The Missing Picture (Cambodia), Omar (Palestine)

This is the category where the winner always gets played off in the middle of his speech while he’s trying to make a point about important issues in his homeland.  And there wasn’t a foreign language film this year that crossed over into the mainstream, the way previous winners Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life is Beautiful did.  So you guessed it – dartboard approach again.  As a general rule, Somber beats Laugh Riot, Stately beats Fast-Paced.  It would be interesting to see Omar take the trophy as a Palestinian film, to my recollection, has never won before.

Makeup and Hairstyling

Nominees:  Dallas Buyers Club, Jackass Presents: Bad Grandpa, The Lone Ranger

This one is pretty easy to figure.  The latter two are Johnny Knoxville in latex as an old man in a gross-out comedy or Johnny Depp with a dead crow on his head in a universally disliked big budget remake of an old 50’s radio show.  The former is likely to see two acting winners on Oscar night.  As they all say, you do the math.

Original Score

Nominees:  The Book Thief, Gravity, Her, Philomena, Saving Mr. Banks

Saving Mr. Banks was composed by perennial also-ran Thomas Newman, who was nominated and lost for Skyfall last year, so cross him off straight away.  The score for All Is Lost, which won the Golden Globe, wasn’t nominated, and The Book Thief is by John Williams who already has a pile of Oscars.  Can you hum the score from Her or Philomena?  So that really leaves Gravity – unless the Academy decides to be charitable and end Newman’s Lucci-esque losing streak.

Original Song

Nominees:  “Happy” from Despicable Me 2, “Let it Go” from Frozen, “The Moon Song” from Her, “Ordinary Love” from Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom

Again, I am biased here, but “Let it Go” is the front runner, with one Ireland-sized caveat:  “Ordinary Love” is by U2, and the Academy gets giggly about the possibility of giving out song Oscars to famous singers – improves the TV ratings, dontcha know; plus Bono gives infamous acceptance speeches.  However, you’re not exactly seeing masses of folks post YouTube covers or parodies of “Ordinary Love,” and it is miles removed from the realm of U2’s best work.  The lyrics are so vague that you’d never guess it was from a movie about Nelson Mandela, and it will be forgotten as soon as the Oscar show ends.  Whereas “Let it Go,” like the movie it’s from, is a cultural phenomenon.

Production Design

Nominees:  American Hustle, Gravity, The Great Gatsby, Her, 12 Years a Slave

Pick period here, every time.  That kiboshes Gravity and Her right out of the gate.  And like costume design, the flashier the better.  I would hazard that 20’s glam Gatsby will outperform the bleaker 70’s and 19th Century.

Animated Short Film

Nominees:  Feral, Get a Horse!, Mr. Hublot, Possessions, Room on the Broom

You saw Get a Horse! if you saw Frozen, and its fourth-wall-breaking inventiveness, homage to classic animated shorts and of course, popularity, will help it triumph over the four titles nobody’s ever heard of without breaking a sweat.

Live Action Short Film

Nominees:  Outside of their immediate families, does it matter?

Sorry to be blunt and cynical, and it is a real shame that more audiences don’t get to see these (a fact pointed out in every acceptance speech made by every winner of this category every single year), but nobody knows the movies, nobody knows the people who made them, and thus nobody knows how to pick the winner.  Eeny, meeny, miney mo is probably the best method.  Good luck!

Sound Editing

Nominees:  All is Lost, Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Lone Survivor

It’s interesting to see The Hobbit get one of its only three nominations here when you consider what an Oscar powerhouse the original Lord of the Rings trilogy was.  Perhaps the attitude towards it is a little on the “been there, done that” side.  No matter, it’s not likely to win anyway.  Sound Editing concerns created sound effects, and the most popular movie always wins, so go with Gravity again.

Sound Mixing

Nominees:  Captain Phillips, Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Inside Llewyn Davis, Lone Survivor

Sound mixing is more about the overall tonal quality, or sonic atmosphere, of a movie as opposed to explosions, footsteps and gunshots.  It’s also rare that a movie will win both sound awards, so I would suggest avoiding Gravity.  Instead I’ll go with an ostensibly oddball pick, Inside Llewyn Davis, and that’s chiefly because the movie is about music.

Visual Effects

Nominees:  Gravity, The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, Iron Man 3, The Lone Ranger, Star Trek Into Darkness

Remember that Forrest Gump won this category in 1994?  (You’re saying “huh?  I don’t remember any effects in that movie.”)  But it did, both for making audiences think Gary Sinise was a double amputee and letting Tom Hanks have conversations with dead Presidents.  Visual effects applied to realistic, non-fantasy films are always preferred over flights of wild imagination.  The dragon was cool as was the starship rising from the ocean, but here it’s gonna be  Gravity, Gravity, Gravity.

Adapted Screenplay

Nominees:  Before Midnight, Captain Phillips, Philomena, 12 Years a Slave, The Wolf of Wall Street

Yay, the writing awards!  The first of the two categories is generally the more boring, and easier to predict.  It only gets shaken up when a celebrity writer is nominated, like Aaron Sorkin for The Social Network in 2010, or someone who’s famous for something else gets a nod for “aw, look, they can write too!”, i.e. Emma Thompson for Sense and Sensibility in 1995.  Absent that, look for 12 Years a Slave to come up trumps here, because movies favored for Best Picture are also the best written, correct?  You’d think so.

Original Screenplay

Nominees:  American Hustle, Blue Jasmine, Dallas Buyers Club, Her, Nebraska

The winner here is always the movie that lives and dies by its concept.  Stories that hinge on absurd premises, mind-bending twists or brilliant, quotable dialogue are the way to go.  The race here is between American Hustle and Her, and I give the edge to Her because the idea of a man who falls in love with Siri is more out-there than the misadventures of con artists in the 70’s, and also because it’s the only award it’s likely to win on Sunday night.

So there you have it – absolutely, positively, 100% not guaranteed to help you triumph over your cinephile friends, because every year we do these lists and every year the Academy throws us a curve (or several).  About the only thing you can ever reliably predict about the Oscars is that they will be long and that the host will make a joke (or several) about how long they are.  But we’ll all stick it out for the Best Picture award, of course, and the winning producer’s claim that the movie’s victory will be a watershed moment in the human struggle with whatever the movie was about.  Which of course, it won’t be.

Happy viewing!

Varying degrees of greatness

The City of Calgary, wallowing in its greatness.

At the Stampede last week, Prime Minister Stephen Harper got up in front of his adopted hometown crowd and proclaimed Calgary the greatest city in Canada.  This being the political climate where no off-the-cuff comment goes un-deconstructed en masse (and Harper being the veteran politician who says nothing that hasn’t been poll-tested), cries of favouritism erupted from his opposition.  In my best mood on my best day I’m hard-pressed to say anything positive about the guy, but this is one instance in which critics just make themselves look silly by raising a public ruckus.  The man is standing in front of a crowd in Calgary – he’s hardly going to tell them that “well, you guys are pretty awesome but Whitehorse totally rocks my socks.”  Does anyone believe that when Bono drops the name of the city U2 is playing in he’s doing it out of a genuine conviction that his time spent in this metropolis has been the most rewarding of his life, or do they recognize that it’s merely an applause line?  I’ve been to Calgary once, for a weekend, and what I saw of it seemed very nice, as did its people, but I’m not sure that it would qualify for this ambiguous concept of greatness anymore than any other Canadian city, town or backwater burg it’s been my fortune to pass through.  The problem isn’t a lacking on Calgary’s part, it’s more a general unease about how to qualify something as great.

“Great” is a word we’ve tossed around so often that it’s become meaningless.  “What a great movie.”  “She’s such a great girl.”  “These are the greatest cookies I’ve ever tasted.”  Yet despite its overuse, the concept of greatness is one that we value greatly.  I remember reading a book in Philosophy 101 called God, the Devil and the Perfect Pizza.  I may get the details wrong – I wasn’t quite the seasoned thinker I am now (snicker) when I first ploughed through it and was distracted by the gorgeous blonde in the very short black miniskirt seated two rows ahead of me.  But the concept was basically a more plain-spoken rehash of the ontological argument that one could prove the existence of God through logic, if one accepted the premise that God was the greatest conceivable being, and that existence being a necessary component of greatness (the idea that a God who did not exist would not, in fact, be the greatest conceivable being), God must therefore exist.  Where the book has fun with this is twisting the argument around to prove by a similar method, the existence of the Devil (hypothesized as the worst conceivable being) and the greatest conceivable pizza.  I don’t think I ever quite grokked the logical twists that validated this line of thinking – I suppose if you’re religious and looking to disprove an atheist it could come in handy.  But the idea of the greatest conceivable anything stuck with me.  “Greatness,” like beauty, is so totally subjective – one man will vomit up in disgust the meal the gourmand thinks is the greatest thing he’s ever eaten – that who I picture as the greatest conceivable being will differ completely from yours, and the next guy’s, and the next guy’s after him.  (Mine might look like that blonde.  I swear, her toned legs in that black mini were a wonder to behold.)

We see this daily in the critical sphere:  endless top ten lists recounting beloved movies, music, literature, artwork, key lime pies.  Quality can be agreed on universally to a point – certainly few can put forth defensible arguments that Plan 9 from Outer Space is a better movie than 2001: A Space Odyssey.  But beyond that point lies the uncanny valley where opinion takes over and cements the final determination, as individual as the person offering it.  It’s also why people usually react badly to self-proclaimed greatness, like when folks who haven’t ventured over their county line announce that America is the greatest country in the world.  Opinions about one’s own greatness are the least valued, especially when one cannot walk the walk, as it were.  Muhammad Ali’s boasts are the stuff of sports legend, but he could back it up in the ring.  How though, do you determine the relative greatness of a more abstract concept like a city, especially if you’re predisposed to bias because you live there (or represent it in the House of Commons)?  Do you base it on hard statistics, like crime, transportation, wealth, homelessness and pollution, or on the equally abstract idea of character?  How do you say with certainty that one city’s character is better than another’s?  The people are nicer, there are more interesting restaurants, the tourist attractions are less cheesy, you can always find a place to park?  Woody Allen once observed that the primary cultural advantage of Los Angeles was the ability to turn right on a red.  It seems that any judgment on the relative greatness of anything is fated to be equally pithy, given that ultimately, the criteria used to make this determination are so esoteric as to defy classification.

Or, in English, there is no such thing as “the greatest.”  There are things that are great and things that are even greater than those first great things.  But “greatest” is forever elusive.  And that is probably great in itself, because it will force us to continue to aim for it.  Declaring oneself the greatest is admitting that not only can you go no further, you don’t even want to try.  You’re entirely satisfied.  You’re done.  And lack of ambition, of aspiration, of the dream of progress, is not a quality associated with greatness in any way.

Besides, everyone knows that the greatest city in Canada is <404 error file not found>

With a great audience comes great responsibility

Herrick Memorial Library at Alfred University.

The one-year anniversary of Graham’s Crackers is fast approaching and it’s been quite the ride.  As you’ll have noticed I also thought that in honor of this momentous occasion a new look might be in order.  Sorry if things aren’t quite where you left them; I’m still working out the kinks in this new theme.  Patience, Daniel-san, it’ll right itself in due time.  Anyway, I find myself in reflective mode, ruminating over the last year; posts that I’m really proud of, others that probably could have stood a good solid re-edit before they went up, some I wish I’d never written at all (and you’d be surprised at some of my choices, not that I’m going to reveal them to you.  U2 always pisses me off when they introduce a new album by saying their last one wasn’t any good – well what does that mean to the people who really connected with that stuff?  Are they then meant to feel stupid for liking it – and spending money on it – in the first place?)

As much as I enjoy being able to write this blog, in many ways it is just as restrictive as it is liberating, for the singular reason that it’s public and people read it.  When you’re writing a new post, you can’t put anything on here you wouldn’t be okay with your worst enemy knowing about, because posting to a public Internet forum is the equivalent of draping a banner on your house announcing your thoughts to the world.  You’d best be able to stand behind what you say, even if hundreds of people are throwing tomatoes at you.  More simply, you must be able to accept the consequences of your free speech – even if those consequences aren’t necessarily negative; often they’re not.  But in an age where privacy is fast becoming an outdated concept, how much of ourselves are we truly comfortable with sharing?  Many things we go through might benefit from literary self-analysis through a similar forum – how we feel about work, our families, our partners.  Experiences our readers will relate to and empathize with.  But should we lay them out boldly for all to see?  It’s often safer to try and explore those issues allegorically, in the context of reviewing some celebrity’s latest mediocre album.

The futile recall attempt in Wisconsin on Tuesday made me want to put my fist through the wall – I know, it’s not my country, but I hate seeing liberals fail and douchebag conservatives triumph no matter where they live, especially since what happens south of the border invariably trickles north.  (Also worthy of punching drywall was an idiot MP here screaming that we should drop out of the UN, and his government abolishing the section of our Human Rights Act that bans Internet hate speech.)  When stuff like that happens I want to vent with a vindictive fury in a blistering torrent of profanity that would embarrass David Mamet.  But then I take a moment, and a breath, and remember that you wonderful people don’t deserve to hear me in my worst moments.  The question is, however, is not letting you see me at my worst somehow dishonest?  Should Graham go utterly crackers and spew what he really thinks across these digital pages?

The obvious answer is of course not.  People I love read me.  People I work with read me.  Friends old and new read me.  Even people I can’t stand and wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire probably read me.  And I am responsible, as Aaron Sorkin says, to captivate you, whoever you are, for as long as I have asked for your attention.  Consideration of the demands of our audience is what makes us better writers – even if it arguably makes us less truthful.  There is a tremendous difference in how I write versus how I speak – I am much better at organizing my thoughts on paper, but that also means I’ve censored myself at times and rearranged arguments for a more logical flow, so I come off like an erudite scholar with all his literary ducks lined up.  When I speak without prepared material, I can occasionally sound like I could benefit from Lionel Logue’s help.  But is that more who I really am?  And am I lying to you by not letting that guy post here?

Maybe, but I’m also saving you some irritation.  A writing class I took once included an exercise where you were forced to write continuously for a pre-determined period of time without thinking about the words or stopping to edit them.  You basically let go and let the words take you wherever they were headed – it was raw, unshaped, unfiltered creativity.  What resulted was honest, pure and truthful.  The trouble was it wasn’t terribly readable, or even particularly interesting.  And I think we can agree that the Internet is saturated with that sort of material already.

Self-expression is freest when no one is listening.  As soon as a monologue becomes a dialogue, the dynamic changes into something else entirely – a conversational game of Pong, with words and feelings evolving and morphing into new ideas and concepts with each volley and return.  I’ve always been a bit uncomfortable with the idea of publishing the diaries of noted individuals after they’ve passed on – while the insights we garner into their eras are valuable from a strictly historical perspective, for the most part these were never intended to be seen by anyone else.  They were intimate confessions with the sole purpose of giving the writer the opportunity to heal their wounded soul in private, away from the judgment of others.  To that end I wonder if perhaps it’s better to accept blogging for what it is, and continue to explore the truth within its limitations, the yin and yang, give and take with the audience.  Ironically, I find something liberating in that.

Don’t worry Coldplay, I still love you

Fun-loving guys, not that you’d know it from the humorless Anton Corbijn photograph.

What’s with the Coldplay hate?  Google “Coldplay criticism” and you’ll find oodles of articles and blog posts slagging the successful English pop quartet for any number of ills including but not limited to vapid lyrics, uninspired melodies, unabashed sentimentality, and that most lethal of sins in the music world, being popular.  I suppose the pile-on of sour grapes might be understandable if Coldplay were a bunch of pretentious, unapologetic douches (a la Chris Brown), but that certainly isn’t the sense you get from them in interviews, or more importantly, in performance – no walking off the stage in a huff of profanity mid-set because there were brown M&M’s in the candy bowl.  No one, even their most ardent supporters, will claim that Coldplay are edgy, envelope-pushing avant-garders, but I’m not convinced that’s what they’ve ever wanted to be.  They are not tortured Van Goghs forcing music out through their pores in relentless emo wrist-cutting agony.  Throughout their career, they have never failed to lose sight of the goal that most musicians, ostensibly, set out to achieve – to entertain.  Last summer I wrote about seeing Hugh Jackman’s show and how his sheer love of his job elevates the act of performance into an unforgettable experience; Paul McCartney at 70 is the same, and so are Coldplay.  After every few songs, frontman Chris Martin will pause to ask the crowd, and not insincerely, “Everybody okay?”  You get the sense that if but one person were to answer in the negative, Coldplay would take it personally.  He and the band recognize, unlike many embittered bands that have gone before, that they are there because of the people smiling back at them, and they owe it to every ticket buyer to give it their all.

Martin himself is an unlikely rock star – a thin, thoughtful, fairly good-looking English kid with a decent but not exceptional voice vaulted almost against his will into the stratospheric realm occupied by the likes of Bono.  Like U2’s leader, he struggles to reconcile his absurd success and wealth with the plight of the less fortunate through activism, stumbling to follow in the footsteps of the one who forged the path and continues to cast an ever-imposing shadow over both men:  John Lennon.  Lennon went through his period of evolution too, once he got the silly love songs out of his system and turned his focus first inward, then outward at the craziness of a war-obsessed world, finding a way to unite both that remains unmatched.  As a songwriter, Martin’s focus has always been on his feelings, and his lyrics have struggled to articulate the complexity of relationships, sometimes, as even he will admit, with rhymes that don’t quite gel.  Any good storyteller knows the key to creating resonance is to focus on the emotions that we all share, and Coldplay would not connect with so many fans were Martin not on to something with the words he sings.  But even Dylan wouldn’t have gone anywhere had he not been able to put the words to memorable tunes, and this is where Coldplay truly shines.  Taking a cue, perhaps, from Phil Spector and the kitchen sink approach of the Wall of Sound, Coldplay have, in their best songs, crafted melodies that are symphonic in their scope, using piano and string craftily without overdoing it, without tipping into syrup.  They think and act big.  “Viva la Vida” became their biggest hit because of its cinematic feel – to extend the movie metaphor, it was like a polished Cecil B. DeMille epic sprung on an era accustomed to smirking, Dogma 95, stripped-down, low-budget garage angst.  And in subject, Martin veered away from the plight of the heart, tiptoeing into the Shakespearean realm of the lament of fallen kings.  Overwrought?  The potential was there certainly, but it never materialized.  Coldplay were smart enough not to make the whole album sound like that, which made “Viva la Vida” that much more special.

Their latest album, Mylo Xyloto, continues their collaboration with U2’s veteran producer Brian Eno, who is succeeding in pushing the band to go big without, as U2 sometimes does, forgetting what made them what they are in the first place.  Coldplay will always be Coldplay, and there is something comforting in that, like the favourite sweater you love pulling on after the work week is done.  Hipster music critics forever trying to elevate thoroughly mediocre bands to undeserved pedestals (The Strokes, anyone?) detest guys like Berryman, Buckland, Champion and Martin because they defy the expectation that real music must always come from a place of pain, and that true musicians are somehow better than the rest of us mortals – that they are more plugged in to the soul and how to express it through song.  Where Coldplay get it right is recognizing that amidst all the existential suffering, the soul wants to be happy.  It wants a reason to smile.  Why not then indulge that – make music that makes the listener feel as good as the performer?  If I want to be depressed and think that the world is an empty, meaningless, cynical place, I’ll put on the Lou Reed record.  I’ve always been more about the hope that things are better than I think they are, and for that purpose, Coldplay is ideal.  When Chris Martin asks “Everybody okay?”, he’s letting us know that he and his bandmates truly do care that we are.  I think that’s something to celebrate, not sneer at.