Friday, February 13, 2004

Y'all come

If you haven't heard, Martin and I are debuting our new country music ensemble, the Mazomanie Boys, tonight at the Rainbow Room. Showtime is 10:00. The show is called Golden Ring, and it's a fundraiser for Action Wisconsin's gay-marriage push. We're singing sad country duets about marriage.

Thursday, February 12, 2004

Is is

Oh dear God, no.
Download this

I go back and forth on file trading. I try to live an honest life, and file trading is inherently furtive and shady. But for music lovers, the file-trading networks are like free drugs. On the other hand, the downloading process can be inconvenient and unreliable. On the other hand, file trading has been invaluable in helping me assemble material for musical projects and lectures.

But it's wrong! I know it's wrong. So I'm going to stop. Just as soon as I finish downloading this MP3 of the DeFranco Family's 1973 bubblegum classic "Heartbeat, It's A Love Beat."

Just kidding. I downloaded that last spring. But my new interest in Top 40 radio (which has faded a bit since I blogged about it a few weeks ago) finally spurred me to investigate music-industry-sanctioned downloading. And the results have been, well, OK.

I first tried MusicMatch, which began selling songs for 99 cents each last September. For ease of use, MusicMatch has it all over the trading networks. When you download a track, you can be pretty certain that the transfer will complete successfully and that the track will be what it purports to be--the record labels have been known to seed the peer-to-peer networks with dummy files of especially popular tracks. MusicMatch's sound quality is good enough for these ears, and the track I bought from the service, Kelly Clarkson's "Low," even came with a picture of the adorable chanteuse.

The rub came when I tried to play the song on my portable music device. I transferred the track, but when I tried to listen to it my player's tiny screen flashed the letters "DRM," which stand for digital rights management. My Kelly Clarkson track is not in the ubiquitous MP3 format but in Microsoft's newer WMA format, which has features that, among other things, limit my music purchases to certain players.

This is infuriating. It is as though I bought a CD that I am allowed to listen to in the living room but not the car. What's worse, MusicMatch's selection is surprisingly limited: I was not able to buy Sarai's delightfully sleazy single "Ladies." If the record companies want to discourage informal file trading, they need to do better than this. I downloaded another track or two from MusicMatch, then gave up.

The last few days brought a new development. I'm writing a preview of a concert by the Von Bondies, the Detroit rockers best known for bar brawls with the White Stripes. The Von Bondies' new record is due out March 9, but my deadline is this week, so for writing purposes I hoped to content myself with their one studio release, 2001's Lack of Communication. No record store in town has the disc, though, so in some desperation I turned to Apple's music service, iTunes, a Windows version of which has been available since October. I didn't find Lack of Communication, but to my delight the service already carries the Von Bondies' new, unreleased disc, Pawn Shoppe Heart, so I eagerly bought it for $9.99. (When it comes to new technology, I'm always happy to spend someone else's money.) The presentation is barebones: no art, no lyrics, just music. But the download was perfect for my needs.

I poked around a bit in iTunes, and the selection impressed me; I was particularly intrigued by the audio books. Unfortunately, iTunes files can only be played on Apple's iPod portable player, and my player is not an iPod, so on that front I am again out of luck. As it happens, I burned a CD of Pawn Shoppe Heart for the truck, and for fun I ripped it back to my computer and found I could indeed listen to those files on my portable player. But this obviously is not a good solution in the long run.

In sum, my first experiences buying music online were a little like my earliest sexual encounters. There was the promise of much excitement. But the process itself was mostly awkward.

Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Let's hit the midway

My reserve copy of Carny (1980) finally came in at the library, so after the Mazo Boys' rehearsal last night, Martin, Ereck and I sat down with a pizza and took in the flick. We weren't disappointed.

In Carny, Jodie Foster plays a teenager who, fed up with her waitressing job and rageaholic boyfriend, runs off with a carnival. She does so at the urging of Gary Busey, a jittery, 25-year-old dunking-booth clown whose partner in the dunking-booth concession is a quietly intense Robbie Robertson, of the Band. (Robertson also composed the carnival music, which has calliope and bells and sounds like, well, carnival music.)

Ereck will be the first to tell you that my deepest interests are esoteric (some might say random), and Carny is a highly unusal in that it combines two of them: carnies and Jodie Foster. The carny thing stems from my trips over the last few years to the Wisconsin State Fair, where the carnies fascinate me as much as the furniture-sized hogs and prize orchids. Two years ago Ereck and I had an unforgettable state fair experience: as we rode the Ferris wheel, the carny operating the ride was led off in handcuffs by the police. (Another carny quickly took over--could it be that they're used to this sort of thing?)

The Jodie Foster love runs much deeper, though. When I was a kid I adored her in 1970s Disney movies like Freaky Friday and Candleshoe. (I didn't catch her contemporaneous performance in Taxi Driver until I was much older.) She's an actor I like to think I grew up with, like a kid in the neighborhood, though I'm shocked just now to check and learn she's almost nine years my elder. Regardless, her wonderfully grounded and honest performances make her one of my favorite actresses.

And Carny is a fabulous vehicle for Foster, who was 18 when it came out. My favorite moment comes as she is running a concession I confess I've never seen: Let's Pull A String, in which marks pull random strings and, they hope, win a prize. In this scene a hot-panted Jodie is sprawled across the booth, holding a log-size bunch of strings, and she does this really amazing erotic smoulder as she hustles her marks--a lesbian couple. (Prophetic, no?)

Carny also features a sword swallower, a transvestite, hostile truckers, a bump-and-grind burlesque, and an enormously obese man singing the blues. When we're not watching the love triangle between Foster, Robertson and Busey, we get to see all manner of fascinating backstage carny culture. As you might expect, carny esprit de corps is strong.

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

I don't know what's wrong with these kids today

It was B-movie day for me again, this time Catch That Kid, in which high-tech preteens rob a bank. The surprising and appealing presence of a 40-year-old (ulp) Jennifer Beals notwithstanding, I sort of hated the movie while I was watching it. It seemed weirdly amoral, and amorality is one thing in a heist movie about adults like Rififi, quite another in a kids' movie. Or so went my thinking at the show.

But afterward it occurred to me that many fine kids' narratives have a kind of amorality, or at least separate spheres of morality for kids and adults. The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is a good example, and when I was a kid I much preferred Tom Sawyer to Huckleberry Finn, I think precisely because of Tom's (obviously not total) amorality. Huck's moral clarity obviously is the better template for living life, but at age nine or so I admired how Tom uses cunning and imagination to outsmart the adults in his life, who anyway are inattentive at best and deeply corrupt at worst.

There are elements of these themes in Catch That Kid, though of course it's no Tom Sawyer.

I had a moment to kill at the movie theater before the film, so I played a round of a Simpsons-themed bowling video game. I chose to be Groundskeeper Willie (my Scottishness again), and although the game wasn't hard--I rolled a 259--I enjoyed hearing Willie say things like, "Those pukes said I had no class!"

Monday, February 09, 2004

Hanoi John

So Rush Limbaugh is sharing a picture of a 1970 peace rally attended by both John Kerry and Jane Fonda.

The hatred of Jane Fonda is something I don't grok. It seems like old news. And she was protesting a U.S. policy in Southeast Asia that was, to the best of my understanding, completely fucked up. Then again, I remember nothing of the Vietnam War years in which I was alive (I was not alive in 1970), and I do understand that many people found her actions hurtful. Still, Rush's using painful memories of Jane Fonda to smear Kerry is, well, typical.

If you're going to hold something against Jane Fonda, why not Agnes of God?

Sunday, February 08, 2004

Mad man

I agree with Cap Times columnist Doug Moe, who asks outlanders not to call Madison Mad Town or Mad City. Locals never use these terms, he notes. (There is a very good record store here named MadCity Music Exchange, but it seems to represent a bygone time.)

At the Old 97's concert the other night, frontman Rhett Miller greeted the crowd with a hearty, "Hello, Mad Town!" The response was subdued. I think people may not have known what he was talking about.