A prompt bit of news

Yes, I’m lagging terribly on bringing the site back up. Did anyone doubt it would be otherwise?

Anyway, wanted to poke my head up long enough to mention that the winners of the 13 Writing Prompts contest are now beginning to appear on McSweeneys.net. This contest was based on a piece I wrote for the site and I selected the winners.

Yes, I’m cheating on my own site. Go figure … If anyone finds their way here after reading the original piece or participating in the contest, welcome. I’m sure I’ll have more stuff for you to read soon.

Godfather’s Daughter Mafia Blues

I admit it: when it comes to this kung-fu stuff, I’m pretty much a novice. I know Jackie Chan and Jet Li and Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen, and innumerable viewings of Iron Monkey have even enabled me to sort-of recognize Yu-Rong Guang. That, my friends, is about the extent of it for me. Like any acolyte, I’m acutely aware of my lack of knowledge, and so I embrace both the masterpieces and the dreck as one who can learn equally well from either.

Godfather’s Daughter—or The Godfather’s Daughter Mafia Blues to give its original Hong Kong title—lands pretty neatly in the middle of those extremes. It begins about 15 minutes before it ought to and stubbornly tries to turn its perfunctory gang-war plot into a mini-Leone-style epic. The skinny: the good crime family, headed by Li Hwa-yu (Alex Man, playing the titular Godfather), is soon set upon by the bad crime family, headed by the young and ambitious Kuyama (Ken Lo). Anna (Japanese star Yukari Oshima), the Godfather’s daughter, tries to fight back on her proud and rather dithering father’s behalf, and is aided by new gang recruit Wai (Mark Cheng), ostensibly there to keep her out of trouble. Li is eventually killed, and it’s up to Anna and Wai to Even the Score.

There’s quite a bit more, including subplots about betrayal and embezzlement that chiefly serve to illustrate how ill-suited the elder Li is to lead an aggressive criminal enterprise, though the film plainly wants us to see him as a man of honor suddenly forced to contend with savages who don’t respect the rules. Sound familiar? Of course it does. Not to worry; we’re here for the fighting, and it’s worth the wait.

The star of the film, though she doesn’t appear until the 15-minute mark, is Oshima. Oshima is cute in a pert, unglamorous way; her Dorothy Hamil cut and fuzzy pink track suit seem chosen for their plain functionality rather than their stylishness. All the more satisfying, then, to see her turn into a writhing, ass-kicking dynamo about halfway through the film. A sexier performer wouldn’t have been as effective; unlike, say, Jennifer Garner in Daredevil, who’s so physically perfect her fighting skills seem just part of the package, Oshima looks like a gal who worked to be able to do what she does, and sure enough, she works her tail off in this movie. Her first show-stopping fight scene takes place in a health club, where she leaps and twirls around the equipment while fending off half a dozen attackers, getting thrown through the occasional wall or glass table in the process. Her fighting is balletic and yet laced with savagery; it’s Oshima’s anger in the action scenes that gives Godfather’s Daughter its most intense moments.

Fighting alongside Oshima is Mark Cheng, whose laconic presence keeps the movie watchable in its dull first act. Cheng’s fighting is cleaner and less wild than Oshima’s, but he’s still terrific to look at, a worthy action hero in his own right. His main role in Godfather’s Daughter is to show up and rescue Anna in the nick of time, a routine that got a bit tiresome after a while. Still, no complaints—this is definitely a duo that keeps your attention.

Ken Lo rounds things out as bad guy Kuyama, spending the movie in an array of rich gangster clothes with one conspicuous exception, the aforementioned health club fight wherein he appears shirtless and in tight sweatpants. Lo is strikingly good looking, and I assume the decision to show him fighting nearly naked wasn’t made on a whim. Fans of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master II remember Lo, of course, as the kickboxing colonial stooge who kicks Jackie onto the bed of hot coals and then proceeds to nearly kick him to death; there was something downright scary in Lo’s fighting in that film, as even Jackie couldn’t quite anticipate where the next lightning-fast kick was going to come from. Sadly, nothing Lo does here compares to his work in that film. His chief role, as I say, is to look handsome and dangerous, and he certainly does that well enough. Even his climactic scene is a small let-down: he fights Cheng with a katana, or short-bladed Japanese sword, and the scene would’ve been more effective had we not just seen Oshima fight off another character wielding a chef’s knife in a claustrophobic Hong Kong apartment; the feral menace of that scene makes much of what follows an anti-climax.

Minor reservations aside, Godfather’s Daughter is a fine example of a pretty good HK action movie: nothing stellar, a little slow or silly here and there, but with enough great action and martial arts to make it worth your while. And the DVD, I must add, offers some great Chinglish. “Beat her as she brings us trouble!”

I Still Kinda Like It When a Plan Comes Together

There’s nothing like revisiting a TV show from your youth to discover exactly how much you’ve grown up in the intervening years. (Or how grown up you already were, if you’re one of the fortunate ones.) I have no idea who that child was who took such pleasure in the Dukes of Hazzard, whose heart used to leap like a deer at the sound of “Dixie” played on a car horn; the good-ol’-boy-hating adult of today wants nothing to do with him. And I strongly suspect the kid who willingly sat through those episodes of Silver Spoons was, in fact, an alien doppleganger sent to infiltrate Earth society by posing as a witless twelve year-old whose role models were dorks. Maybe he was just a kid too lazy to get off his ass and change the channel.

Whoever those strange alternate selves turn out to be, I do feel a strong kinship to the kid who watched The A-Team. I was thrown back into his presence on the occasion of TV Land’s A-Team Fandemonium Marathon: 48 hours of dummy bullets, exploding cars, and men soaring balletically through the air. Not to mention lousy acting, weak puns, preposterous celebrity cameos, and enough specimens of Geniune Eighties Hair to start a museum. It’s probably not a good idea to watch anything constantly for two straight days, and sitting in front of The A-Team for more than a few hours inflames the human demand for plausibility into a rage-fueled geyser. “How can Hannibal Smith possibly have an acting career when he’s a wanted fugitive?” you might find yourself demanding of your roommate, or girlfriend, or cat, or the wall. “Who actually thinks Face is that good-looking? How could any doctor with brains think that Murdock is really crazy? How many stupid machines are they going to build out of discarded freezer parts or old wheelbarrows? And why the fuck doesn’t anyone ever get killed?”

But why stop at rampant implausibility when you can add repitition? All tv shows rely on formula to a certain extent, but The A-Team is in a league—a sport—all its own. It established a formula in its first few episodes and stuck to it so rigidly one could easily imagine a software program capable of generating A-Team stories. (Oh look—someone already has.) And although every A-Team fan knows the routine, and since you probably wouldn’t be reading this if reams of gunplay and cheesy jokes aren’t your cup of tea, we nevertheless must revisit, briefly, the well-oiled engine that was an A-Team story.

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Interview with Christina Marrs

To start with, rather than the cliché “Why a Christmas album?”, I’ll go with the cliché “Why a live Christmas album?”

For a number of reasons; obviously it’s a lot less expensive to record that way than having to go into the studio. Aside from that even, most of the Spankers’ recordings that we’ve released have been live recordings. There’s only been [recording] in the studio on two occasions, for Spanker Madness and for Hot Lunch. Even our first CD release, Spanks for the Memories, although it wasn’t recorded in front of a live audience, it was recorded essentially live around one microphone. We’re just real comfortable recording like that. So much of what the Spankers do is the live experience, and hopefully that comes across a little better in a live recording than it does in a studio recording.
You’re more comfortable in that setting than going into a studio and dealing with amplifiers and mikes and all that stuff?

It’s not that the studio intimidates us. It is wonderful to be able to go into that studio, especially we did do so many live recordings, to be able to take that time and overdub some vocals and get everything the way we want it, it’s a luxury that you don’t have when you’re recording live. I guess it’s just that we are comfortable recording live, and I don’t know how many bands are comfortable doing that, but for us it’s kind of old hat.

Why only the one original Wammo tune? Why not some more typical Spankers’ out-there sort of humor for the Christmas songs?

I don’t know. Maybe because it’s a slightly more reverent subject? I don’t know. It’s not something I would automatically think about—if someone told me I had to I could probably write a Christmas song, or a holiday song, but I just don’t think that the subject matter is something that inspired us to write a slew of Christmas songs. I don’t know if the world needs more Christmas songs! (laughs)

So when the idea to do the album, there was never really a question of, “Let’s write something original for it,” it was more “Let’s just pick our favorite tunes and do those”?

I don’t even know that it was ever really conscious. From my side, I was personally just concentrating on finding tunes in that genre that I liked to do. I like singing other people’s songs, you know? (laughs) I don’t have to write all my own songs and only perform those. Wammo’s been going through a lot of that in the last couple of years, where he doesn’t really like singing other people’s songs anymore, he wants to do all his own stuff. But I still say there’s a lot of fun to be had in taking a song that you know and breathing your own life into it. I really enjoy doing that.

Were there any songs that didn’t make it into the album or into the shows that you would like to do for the Christmas project?

There was a couple things that didn’t make it onto the record. We did a version of the Pogues’ “Christmas in New York.” There’s something about it, I think was just … it didn’t make it on the record. (laughs) I don’t know; I think part of it was we didn’t feel we were doing the song justice, and there was another glitch in that every live recording we had of it had something wrong with it, to the point, you know, that it just didn’t make it on.

I think we did a lot of cool songs, we found some other cool songs in the process that we didn’t end up recording for one reason or another. I think there was a song that we discovered and thought, “God, what a great song, this is so great, I can’t believe I haven’t heard anybody do it,” and then found out shortly afterward that the Squirrel Nut Zippers had, in fact, covered that song for their Christmas record. So we were like, “Well, you know, we don’t really need to follow that up.” So, you know, it’s a pretty natural process for finding tunes we like.

It’s pretty much the album you intended to do from the start?

Yeah, I think so. It’s just another theme record for us, and we’re pretty familiar with that.

To get back to songwriting: where I first came to notice you guys was with Hot Lunch, which I believe was all originals.

I think it’s got a couple covers on it, but it’s mostly originals, yeah. And Spanker Madness was the next record and that’s all original with the exception of one song, but that had been in the Spankers’ repertoire for many years so we kind of felt obligated to get it down. (laughs)

So, given that this band is so big, and so fluid in its membership, how do you “assign” the songwriting duties? Do you write when you know you have an album due, or do songs just accumulate?

It’s a little bit of everything, really. Wammo and I are the principle songwriters, and Stanley Smith and other people in the band in previous years also wrote, so we’ve always had a lot of songwriters in this band. The songwriting process I guess is unique to each individual and it’s also unique in each situation, how it comes into the band. When we recorded Spanker Madness we set out a goal of each person to write a couple of reefer tunes. When we had enough work to do an EP – originally we were going to do an EP – I think the subject was so inspirational to some of us (laughs) that we ended up with more songs. We said, “Well let’s make this a full-length record,” and I had to go back and write two more reefer tunes. So I ended up writing four and Wammo ended up writing three, and then Stanley wrote one and Korey [Simeone] wrote one and Guy [Forsyth] wrote a couple, so we did have a lot of input there.

We do write sometimes when we know we’re going into the studio and we have a purpose in mind. But a lot of times songs accumulate. We all live so spread-out that when we get together it’s usually at the start of a tour, and that’s the time when the new material gets worked up. “OK, I wrote a couple songs between this tour and the last one, we need to get ‘em going.” So it’s a little bit of everything really.

Does stuff ever come out of improvisation or stuff you just toss out at rehearsal?

Yeah, it certainly does. We’ve had songs that were entirely improv’ed. We have songs that we did on a lark and ended up being our most popular songs.

Was “Hot Lunch” one of those?

No, I think that was a piece that Leroy [Biller] and Eamonn [McLaughlin] – Leroy being our guitar player, and Eamonn being the violin player – they got together and specifically wrote that. And that’s just another example of someone in the band who’s not a singer, another collaboration. So there’s a lot of creativity in this band, there always has been, even as the members come and go.

We get our material from a lot of different inspirations, and it comes together in a lot of different ways. Wammo and I just wrote a song recently that—we joked about writing a country song, a ballad with the catchline “If you love me you’d sleep on the wet spot.” It was a running joke for a couple years, and I finally wrote it down to a melody and wrote the bridge, and then we got together and wrote a verse, and then I think six months later we got together and wrote another verse and a bridge (laughs), and it was just this evolving process where the song is finally ready.

Is it difficult to be in a band with, as you said, so many people that come and go? Are you and Wammo kind of “in charge” when all is said and done?

I guess what it comes down to is it’s not exactly a democracy, but as far as decisions about people coming into and leaving the band, we try to involve as much as input from other people in the band as we possibly can. At any given time in the Spankers, there’s Wammo and I, who’ve been here all along, we’re in our eighth year, and Stanley, who’s been with us almost since the very beginning. And then there might be someone in the band who’s only been with us for three months, or six months or a year. So you can’t really have a true democracy where you put everything to the vote when you have the varying levels of seniority. Certainly [with] major decisions I at least like to get input from the other people; these are the people that you have to work with, and we like to have kind of a feeling of family and for everybody to feel like they have some kind of say and involvement in what goes on.

I noticed that Pops Bayless isn’t on the Christmas record. Is he away for good?

Pops Bayless hasn’t been in the band for a couple years now. He was on Spanker Madness; he quit the band before we’d even mixed the few songs that we had. It was after he left that we decided to turn the EP into a full-length, so we had two different sessions for that record, and if you look at that record there’s two different bass players on it. (laughs) One did the first session and one did the second session, and I think each session produced five or six songs. We actually ended up cutting one of Pops Bayless’s songs because he quit in the middle of it all. It was the first time that the split from the band wasn’t the most amicable one (laughs), so we did cut one of the songs he’d written and sung on the album, and I think he does a banjo track here and there. Nothing real major, but his name is still credited on that record although he’s just playing a rhythm instrument or two on a couple tracks. Him and Mysterious John quit at the same time, and they have another band in Austin now called Shorty Long, and that’s what they’ve been doing for the last couple years.

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Hi, My Name Is Jack, and I’ll be Your Murderer Tonight

Greetings. My name is Jack Labeckie, though you may know me by my more popular name, “Labeckie the Butcher.” I know you will be excited to learn that you have been selected to join my elite, yet ever-growing, roster of victims.

At some point later this evening, I will capture you and render you unconscious, transport you to my hidden lair, and, over the course of many productive hours, gradually take your life.

The actual process of killing you will be long and, regrettably, extremely painful. Unfortunately, at this time it is not possible to reduce the suffering of my victims without lessening the pleasure derived from the act itself. While your suffering will be horribly protracted, you may be pleasantly surprised at how quickly the time seems to pass. Realize also that, while I have successfully kept victims alive for more than 37 hours, most of my captives perish well before that point. Who knows … you may be one of the lucky ones!

Frequently Asked Questions of Jack Labeckie, Serial Predator

1. Oh my God. Why are you doing this? Why?
Hey, if I knew that, I probably wouldn’t be doing it! 😉 Seriously, the roots of my psychosis run so deep it would take a team of prison psychiatrists a lifetime to trace them all. And even if I could explain it, let’s face it: would it really make this any easier for you?

2. Please, I have money. There’s money in the shoebox in the closet. We have valuable jewelry. Take it. Take everything you want. Just let me live.
While I appreciate the gesture, I don’t kill for money; my job as an itinerant computer salesman gives me all I need to keep body and soul together.

3. This can’t be happening! This can’t be happening!
While not strictly a question, I hear this often enough that I ought to have a response. While some philosophical disciplines maintain that reality and being are psychological constructs, often imposed upon us by an oppressive external power, I personally don’t have any trouble believing in my own reality and the reality of what I do. It’s only fair to mention that my victims have rarely found this attitude to be a comfort to them once in my clutches.

4. Why me? My god, why are you doing this to me?
Now this is a question worthy of a serious reply. If you wonder whether you’ve done something to deserve a brutal and violent death, let me assure you that is not the case. There is simply no predicting what will turn an individual from an anymous passerby into the object of my cold, dispassionate malice. It might’ve been the way you said hello to the doorman at work; it might have been a particularly jaunty flip of your hair, the way you tossed away a coffee cup and sank it into the wastecan in one clean shot. As you endure the hours we spend together—and we will spend many, many hours together—please don’t waste time wondering which of the thousand insignificant decisions you’ve recently made could have been made differently to keep you out of my clutches.

5. No!! You’re not going to use that, are you? Please—anything but that!!
Yes, I’m afraid I am going to use it. (Don’t worry, you’ll find out soon enough.)

I hope this has answered your questions and put some of your worst doubts to rest. I look forward to working with you.

Yours sincerely,

Jack Labeckie

Pink Floyd – “Is There Anybody Out There? The Wall Live”

“Is there anyone here who’s weak?!” jeers Roger Waters in the final act of Pink Floyd’s The Wall, and if the audience takes exception to his peculiar brand of misanthropic irony, their cheers give no indication. The product of Waters’ increasing alienation from—and contempt for—Pink Floyd’s enormous following, The Wall’s expansive brew of paranoia, oedipal terror, fascism and anti-war nostalgia is the symbolic capstone to the 70s prog-rock pyramid, and its accompanying live concerts remain a high-water mark of rock theater.

Though critics attacked its dominant metaphor as simplistic, even the die-hard Floyd-haters were bowled over by the presentation: a wall of hundreds of bricks was constructed steadily through the first half of the show, obscuring the entire stage (and the band) from the audience’s view and making the usual Floydian array of films, inflatable puppets, and pyrotechnics all the more vivid and powerful. At the show’s finale, when Waters bellowed “Tear down the wall!”, that’s exactly what happened: the wall tumbled down, the band took its bows, and the fans, it may be safely assumed, went out of their minds.

Of course, you’re not going to see any of that while listening to Is There Anybody Out There?, the long-awaited live recording of the Wall shows. No wall, no lasers, no animations, no nightmarish puppets of schoolteachers or castrating mothers–in fact, nothing of the grandiose invention that made the concerts so legendary. A video may yet be released (it’s rumored that the existing footage is of poor quality), but isn’t the point of a CD the music?

In this case the answer depends on your feelings, if any, for Pink Floyd in general and The Wall in particular. Critics usually slot Pink Floyd into the progressive rock family tree, home of great lumbering beasts like the Moody Blues, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, but Floyd’s rock n’ roll chops put them far beyond the reach of any of those bands; they could be pretentious, but they also could plug in and rock out — did Yes ever record anything approaching “Money” or “Have a Cigar”? Today’s Pink Floyd roadshow may be as bloated and boring as that of most other aging classic rock acts, but back in 1980 they still had enough muscle left to make an exciting noise; you don’t need to see the flying pig to want to reach for the volume knob. Even playing The Wall, a show with hundreds of cues that had to be met with split-second timing, they find room to stretch out and let the music take off: “Another Brick in the Wall Pt. 2” is embellished with a jivey organ solo, “Mother” is opened out with some soulful guitar work by David Gilmour and “Run Like Hell” is rougher, and better, than the more anesthetized studio version; I move that the version here replace the studio recording on classic rock radio playlists for at least the next five years.

So we admit the band can rock; but on the other hand, Pink Floyd created most of its best work under the riding crop of one of rock’s most notorious control freaks, and the fetish-like attention to detail evidenced here, with every sound bite, echo and bass fill from the album faithfully included, makes Is There Anybody Out There? more interesting as a document of Roger Waters’ theatrical élan—and his obsessiveness—than as a musical performance. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. You may hate Pink Floyd and you may really hate The Wall, but the album is still the most comprehensive statement ever made about the relationship between rock stars and their audience; it’s a flawed masterpiece, just like Sergeant Pepper (another album from a stadium rock act frustrated by an audience who cheered and screamed but no longer listened). With The Wall, Roger Waters attempted to overcome his alienation from Pink Floyd’s audience head-on, by flinging his frustrations back into their faces. The wall he built across the stage dramatized his feelings of imprisonment, but in a sense it imprisoned the audience too, forcing them on a frightening journey in which every atrocity the artist reveals, from losing a parent in war to being unfairly punished by a schoolteacher, is met with applause. (A sequence planned for the Wall film would have shown the audience being machine-gunned from the stage, and still cheering.) Waters wanted his audience to understand that such adulation, however well-meant, destroyed the artist’s soul, leaving him lonely, paranoid, and unable to regard the rest of humanity as deserving any more sympathy than a hive of ants. (Or, in more Watersian terms, worms.)

That The Wall was such a phenomenal success—it was #1 for months, selling something like 13 million copies—makes the story that much more remarkable. In a sense it’s a testament to failure; Waters must have known in his heart that the cheering Earls Court crowds weren’t really getting it. No wonder, introducing “Run Like Hell,” he becomes so wound up with mock rage it’s hard to know if he’s joking: “Put your hands together!” he bellows. “Have a good time! Enjoy yourselves!!