Monday, June 29, 2009

My Own Private Shaolin: Karaoke Night with ODB

The relative paucity of posthumous Old Dirty Bastard releases has been kind of disappointing. As a vocalist Dirty effected a reckless charisma that could make reading the phone book sound dangerous and exciting. So why wasn't the RZA getting ODB in the studio every night and turning him loose? I got to thinking about how dope it would be if a "lost" recording of Old Dirty covering modern pop classics was discovered.

I like to classify Old Dirty with the singers of old jazz standards. Sinatra, Billy Holiday, Chet Baker, et al. Meaning in his work is conveyed not through the imagery or narrative content of his songs but through the precisely unhinged manner in which they are delivered. Call it the "not what I say but how I say it" phylum. Or more accurately, "whatever the fuck it says, no one can say it like me."

As a songwriter Dirty's brilliance lies in the creation of blunt, redundant choruses that distill his wildly meandering verses into simple idioms. Brooklyn Zoo for example is a bombardment of aimless boasts and scatter shot cultural references that are somehow reconciled by Dirty's repetitive, climactic pronouncement: "Shame on you / when you step up to / the Old Dirty Bastard. Brooklyn Zoo!" This reductive approach allowed Dirt Dog to experiment with nontraditional song formats. He could structure tracks as haphazardly as he wanted to, knowing that he could still generate isomorphism with a single, abrupt declaration.

I took this into consideration when compiling the following fantasy tracklist for a hypothetical Old Dirty Bastard covers EP, songs that would not only flatter his vocal skills, but also gel thematically with the rest of his oeuvre.

1. All Tomorrow's Parties - The Velvet Underground
Not only would the haunting instrumentation of this song blend ideally with Old Dirty's shrieking, uneven style, but it's lyrics approximate Wu-Tang's disgust with the base materialism of early nineties hip hop culture. "And what costume shall the poor girl wear / to all tomorrow's parties? A hand me down dress / from who know where / to all tomorrow's parties." This could easily be directed at Puff Daddy or Mace, artists who had more commercial success than Wu-Tang, but were viewed by the clan as inauthentic, creatively vapid, and needlessly obsessed with their clothes and shiny cars. "A hand me down dress / from who knows where" could reference commercial raps dependency on recycling tired themes and formats. Dirty, after all, prided himself on his "fatherless style" and paradoxically glossed himself Ason Unique, one who acknowledges his artistic heritage while crafting his own incomparable approach. "She'll turn once more to Sunday's clown / and cry behind the door," suggests that other rappers secretly recognize their insignificance when compared to ODB and are a bunch of weepy bitches.

2. Undone: The Sweater Song - Weezer
The lyric, "Hold this thread as I walk away" makes Undone a good choice for any posthumous covers album, and "Watch me unravel..." can be easily applied to artists like Dirty who had a taste for excess and precision tuned self destruction. Rivers Cuomo's opening mantra "I am / me be / goddamn / I am..." would go from doubtfully assertive to downright pathological when delivered in Old Dirty's rugged growl. Also its fun and easy to imagine Big Baby Jesus lying on the floor of an arena stage buck naked, grunting his way through the refrain.

3. Beast of Burden - The Rolling Stones
Another song communicating ODB's frustration with his inability to breakthrough from underground curiosity to hip hop superstar. The plaintive "I'd never be your beast of burden" could be directed at critics who thought Dirty was too erratic and unpredictable to be a reliable commodity in the music world. Record executives tell ODB that he ain't there kind of man, to which he responds, "Ain't I rough enough enough? / Ain't I rich enough..."

4. Someone to Watch Over Me - Chet Baker
A brutally ironic tribute from a man who needed a guiding hand to help curb his enthusiasm for drugs and alcohol and put him on a path to success. While this manifested itself partially in the form of RZA, too many nights Dirty found someone else to watch over him, in the form of flunkies and purveyors of narcotics. Again, he pleads vitally for acceptance in the rap game, "Although I may not be / the man some girls think of / as handsome / to her heart / I'll carry the key."

5. We Will Fall - The Stooges
One of my buddies promoted an underground Old Dirty show in Detroit in the late nineties. After the show he was given the task of delivering a pizza to the hotel suite where they were putting Dirty up. When my buddy showed up with the pie, Old Dirt Dog was shoveling ketamine up his nose while talking on two cell phones at the same time. On the end of one line was one of his baby mommas back in East New York. On the other phone was the dope man. Bored looking white girls walked around the room in their underwear. This is no doubt a scene that repeated itself night after night as Dirty toured the globe, and is one I think of when I hear We Will Fall. "And I love you / And we'll fall to sleep..." finds Dirty warmly resigned to his life between fixes, to his comforting, familiar thirst for oblivion.

6. Dominoes - Syd Barrett
Syd Barrett's laconic, almost disembodied homage to idleness, the song could be reinterpreted as a man confronting the constant threat of incarceration and forced withdraw from society. Dirty was plagued with legal troubles throughout the last ten years of his life, and no doubt suspected somewhere in the back of his mind that he would wind up behind bars. We can imagine Old Dirty locked down, meditating on the music world passing him by while he wasted time on dominoes and other banal pursuits. "Fireworks and heat someday / Hold a shell / a stick or play / overheard a lark today / losing when my minds astray / don't you want to know with your pretty hair..."

7. That's How Strong My Love Is - Otis Redding
If nothing else, ODB was passionate about his music and his lifestyle. If anyone had the chops to match Otis' passion on That's How Strong My Love Is it would be Dirty. This song is constructed to account the for unpredictable metric intensification of the lyrics, and Dirty was a master of switching his style from bar to bar. I imagine this cover running in excess of ten minutes, with most of it being the outro, as Dirty goes to painful lengths in trying to convince his listeners that his love is, in fact, that strong.

RIP Joe Bananas

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Good n' Fruity Done Lost its Soul

Candy fans, get hype for the reissued Good n' Fruity at your peril.

I've been a fan of Good n' Fruity since jump street. During my coming of age as a candy consumer between the ages of eight and ten, the Good n' Fruity was a go to product. This was a time before the widespread distribution of Swedish fish, Sour Patch Kids, and Jelly Bellies. Options were more limited for the young candy head looking for a chewy, fruit flavored varietal.

The thing about Good n' Fruity that made it such a fresh and distinct candy was that the insides of each color had the same taste platform, that of classic red licorice. Individual flavors were defined and differentiated by the color of their shells. The concept was way ahead of its time in that every flavor is a subtle red licorice hybrid: when you're finessing an orange Good n' Fruity what you're really fucking with is multitextual capsule of orange-red licorice. This realization blew my mind. '

I pushed Good n' Fruity to the limit by crushing them while I was chewing Big League chew. This not only made it a three textured experience, but also doped the flavor out to a whole new level. Say you pop in a cheek full of pink Big League Chew, then introduce two pink and two green Good n' Fruity. Now you're rocking five different fruit flavors all congealed into the dreamy texture of wet band-aids.

The Good n' Fruity was discontinued in the mid 1990's. A petition in 2008 led to the Hershey company reintroducing it. I was excited to see the familiar pink box back on the shelves, but I was appalled when I cracked one open and discovered that Hershey had dramatically changed the form and concept of this once unique candy. The current incarceration of the Good n' Fruity is just a jelly bean, and a vulgar one at that. The subtlety that once made Good n Fruity a viable dietary staple is in the wind. Nothing about this product recommends itself to the adventurous candy head's palette. I'm sure many of the over 2,000 good souls who signed the petition for Good n' Fruity's reintroduction were disappointed as well. Make this right, Hershey. Bring back the old school formula.

Halftime with Howard Cosell in Hell

Hail satan. This is Howard Cosell speaking from Hell. We are now on day 1,034 of what is shaping up to be one of the most unbearable halftimes in the storied history of inter-infernal athletics. The score remains, eternally damned Washington Redskins zero, eternally damned Seattle Seahawks, zero. Coming up we'll have highlights from what was a thoroughly joyless and poorly executed first half of football.

Right now we take you back down to the field, where legendary rap artist Eazy E continues to perform for this teeming overflow crowd of 600,000 plus. As you can see, Eazy has been tethered to a flaming pole at the fifty yard line. Ice cold 40s of malt liquor have been placed on the hash marks, just outside of his reach. Again the little man stretches out to grab one of the bottles, and again he comes up just short. You can tell Satan had something special in mind when it came time to exact his distinct brand of torment on this glamorizer of violence and promiscuity.

When Old Scratch tapped Eazy to provide this evening's halftime entertainment, there was a great deal of excitement. The diminutive gangster had the crowd going bananas early on as he performed hits such as "We Want Eazy," and "Down 2 tha Last Roach." However, after an electrifying rendition of "Gimme that Nut," Eazy found himself out of material. Treading water, he has now spent over 20,000 hours relating explicit anecdotes from his life coming up in the hood. All the while quixotically groping for the bottles of Old English 800.

It is safe to say that this journalist would have died from boredom by now were I not already condemned to this realm of disembodied and morally bankrupt souls. Only the First of the Fallen could have conjured a fate so miserable, a circumstance so excruciatingly mind numbing for the audience, the entertainer, and particularly for members of the broadcast media. And just when you thought my predicament couldn't be any more stultifying, we are now joined via closed circuit from the land of the living by my still animate colleague Don Meredith.

--Hail Satan, Howard. Great to be here.
--Welcome Danderoo, tell us what you thought about that first of action.
--I thought both teams got slowed down by all the fumbles and shanked field goals. 265 yards in false start penalties alone for eternally damned Seattle. Wow. They might be trying to slow the game down and keep that potent eternally damned Redskins offense off the field.
--Dan I'm just telling it like it is when I point out that no team in the Ineter-Infernal Football League has ever scored a touchdown. Any chance we'll see that change tonight?
--Well Howard I think we're going to see those big Redskins offensive linemen open up some holes here in the second half. If they put the blade down and really start plowing brimstone up front for these talented running backs, I think things could get exciting.
--Dann O, you know as residents of Hell we are subjected to season after season of scoreless, spirit crushing ties as punishment for our sins against the father.
--You know what they say, anything can happen in sports, and it usually does.
--Dan the buzz around the IIFL lately has been Lawrence Taylor's impending fatal heart attack. League sources are reporting that he could drop for the Giants at any time.
--Well, its a terrible loss for us topside. But football fans in Hell sure have to be excited. I can see the Giants getting some great production from Taylor on the field.
--And I'm thinking that The Boss of the Lost is going to come up with something really diabolical off the field to make him suffer for his misdeeds. Dan thank you for joining us, you have proven once again to be neither loquacious nor truculent.
--There you go again, Howard, using those $50 words of yours. Hail Satan!

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Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Yes, The Robe

Er, the Charles Baxter incident

Slow day at the bookstore.   I was eating a blueberry Danish and reading Ben Hogan’s Power Golf when this cute little blonde came up to buy a stack of Charles Baxter novels.  She was wearing a Free Mumia Abu Jamal T-Shirt.  I was bored and longing for distraction so as she set her books on the counter I dipped sportingly into Cassanova mode.  

            “It’s your lucky day madam.   Today and today only, I’m offering free blueberry Danishes to any purchaser of Charles Baxter novels.”

            I happened to have a large box of blueberry Danishes behind the counter, having worked out an arrangement with a science fiction collector named Bruce who drove the Otis Spunkmeyer delivery truck.  He came up short for cash that morning when attempting to buy an early edition Conan and we cut a deal.   

            Blondie looked at my curdling, half eaten Danish, shook her head, and changed the subject.    

            “Have you ever read anything by Charles Baxter?  He’s amazing.”

            “Well he’s on my list, but I’m still working my way through the 120 Days of Sodom.  So far I’ve only got to day 89.  Blueberry Danishes figure prominently in it but I’ll spare you the details.”

            She continues to eyeball the sad remains of my pastry while telling me how she just finished taking one of Baxter’s classes at U of M.  How she’s rewriting Wydham Lewis’ Apes of God from the perspective of the apes and how he has such penetrating insights into their craft. 

            Writers that is.  Not apes. 

            I was adding up her total when I noticed one of the books was signed by Baxter and priced higher than the rest.

            “I’ll have to charge you more for this one because it’s signed by your buddy Charles.”  

            “I’ll pass on it then.  I’m going to have him personally inscribe these to me when I get back to school.”

            The Baxter talk made her nipples so hard it looked like Mumia’s eyes were bugging out of his head

            “You know, there’s a good Indian joint up the street, I’d love to take you there sometime and hear more about your monkey book.”

            “No thanks. I’m dating a performance artist we’re busy rehearsing for his next show.  I’m going to be slowly lowered via freight elevator into a vat of scalding nacho cheese while he whispers the transcripts from the Nuremburg trials into the ear of a humungous plush lobster.  And please don’t call them monkeys.  They’re apes.” 

            She paid for her stack of books and split.  I was left alone with the signed Charles Baxter book sitting on the counter. 

            Earlier that week a coworker and I had joked about by boosting our lethargic sales by forging autographs.  We practiced duplicating the signatures of Kennedy, Dickens, Twain.  A few other heavyweights.  I decided to try Baxter and found his signature remarkably easy to copy.  After twenty minutes of practice I could produce a very convincing facsimile. 

            The next morning I went to the warehouse and loaded up on replacement copies of all the books blondie had bought the day before.  I took them back to the store and began forging bizarre inscriptions on the front endpapers and pricing them for sale. 

            “Dear Ernesto, thanks for cleaning out my gutters.  And good luck with the surgery.  See you on the runway, babe.  Lovingly, Charles Baxter.”

            “My dearest Petunia, I’ll have the Pink Panther costume dry cleaned and returned to you no later than Thursday.  Sorry I forgot to refill the ice cube trays.   Enjoy the book, Charles Baxter.”

            “To a little friend, thanks for referring me to Dr. Casper.  He is a wonderful podiatrist.  I’m just sure we’re both going to “get on the good foot in 2006” your old chum, CB.”

            A lot of Baxter’s academic cronies were assigning his books for their classes that fall and there was a decent turnover of his stuff in the store.  I was careful to never over saturate our stock with phonies, but always eager to put one out if opportunity provided.                “Dear Monica, I was going to name my first child Roscoe, but after our blissful hour and a half at the Highlander motel, I wouldn’t dare think of naming it after anyone but you.  With tingling toes and a song on my lips, Charlie.”  

            I’d never read a single sentence of Baxter’s prose and had no concept of his literary prowess.  Still, I indulged in fantasies where he was discovered to be the definitive millennial novelist and books containing his signature achieved great value and historical prestige.  That these inscriptions of mine, mechanically indistinguishable from his own hand, would have their veracity debated by scholars and perhaps one day contribute to the mythos of a great man. 

            Even more indulgently I imagined myself emerging as a great novelist and having some late 21st century hermetic scouring my fakery for some gainful minutiae that might lend meaning to the themes and structures of future masterworks I hadn’t even begun to conjure. 

            So for the next year I went on forging his hand.

            They invited my boss to participate in a panel discussion on bibliomania at the Ann Arbor book fair.  He hated doing talks like this so he lied and said a dentist appointment and dumped it on me.  I checked out the lineup and saw that Baxter was talking on this other panel.  “Insect reppellant and the Constructivist moment in the modern novel.”  Something heavy like that. 

            The night before the fair there was a reception for the panelists in the banquet room of a Best Western.  A shrimp cocktail and wine gig.   I kept looking for Baxter but he didn’t show.  I hung out with some of my cronies from the book trade.  The little blonde I’d met in the bookstore was there and she spotted me.

            “Ben!  I got so excited when I heard you were on a panel.”

            “That’s great.  Are you going to come hear me talk?”

            “Well, my boyfriend is burning an effigy of Elmore Leonard tomorrow beneath the big maple tree on the law quad the same time your speaking…so I’m gonna miss it …but could you sign this book for Charles?”

            “Charles Baxter?”

            “It’s an anthology of his student’s work!  I’ve had it custom bound in lambskin, and I’m getting everybody who’s talking at the book fair to sign it.” 

            I’d had a few glasses of wine and I couldn’t help but smirk when she hands me her rubbery book and a Uniball.  

               “Dear Charles Baxter, what happens on the life raft stays on the life raft.  But I’ll get your monocle polished, sterilized, and returned, as soon as I can.  Ben Ness.”

              I gave blondie her book back and checked out the way her nipples brought out the eyes of the Juan Valdez looking peasant on her “Peace with Honduras” t-shirt. 

             “You know, I’ve got a room upstairs…”  But she had dashed off to ask Umberto Eco a question about the feeding habits of silver back gorillas and its relation to the simulacra. 

            Signing a book for Baxter himself I took as the karmic finale of my prank.  I decided to cut out signing his books.  But I still took pleasure in going to other bookstores and seeing that my forgeries were circulating.  And I was especially delighted by other bookseller’s perplexed notation, penciled below the price. 


            A few months later I was back in Ann Arbor to see a football game and after it was over I decided to browse a few bookstores.  This joint on State St. had an especially long row of Baxter novels and I opened them to see if I’d inscribed them.   

            I had.  

            “Fairest Marcel, when you get done deicing the freezer please enjoy this work of incomparable genius.  Yours and yours alone, Ben Ness.” 

            “Oh Beverly, I’m sorry I scratched your Wrestlemania DVDs.  Please accept this masterfully crafted novel as a tolken of my regret.  Your little pepper shaker, Ben Ness.”

            The signature was indistinguishable from my own. 

            I checked all the bookstores in town.  In every one, Charles Baxter’s books contained absurd, effusive inscriptions.  From me. 

            “Dear Keith, hate to paraphrase Jodeci, but every freaking night, and every freaking day, I want to freak you baby in every freaking way.  Enjoy this book by Charles Baxter, who is probably the greatest man ever to live.  Love, love, love, love, love love love love love, Ben Ness.”