Sunday, November 04, 2007

Yo La Tengood!

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I've been a little overwhelmed lately, so I wont wax in depth about this, but I saw indie rock emissaries Yo La Tengo Friday night at the Ivar Theatre in Hollywood. It was a wonderful show. This was part of their "Freewheeling Yo La Tengo Tour" which basically means they had a stripped down, acoustic set-up, and they developed their setlist extemporaneously via discussion from the audience. Too bad my LA peers, myself included, didn't seem ready to stimulate dynamic discussion. The music on the other hand, was incredible. The loose format made the show hearken back to what it might have been like to see them in their earlier days. Ira, the guitarist and singer, said this format was kind of like how their practices are. Except with more songs. They even switched instruments for their second to last song afer a dude asked them to. Georgia, singer and drummer and wife of Ira (and warm fuzzy center of the band in this stolid, playful sense) wasn't too into playing guitar. We applauded the effort all the same.

Speaking of Yo La Tengo from their earlier days, here's a video of them in 1988. They are obviously less precious these days, more mature, marinated, but the show had this kind of feel, somewhat, and not really:

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007


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So short story master Raymond Caver's works might have been edited beyond his satisfaction by Gordon Lish and others prior to their publication. They were published though, to wide acclaim. Carver's widow, Tess Gallagher, now wants to restore the Lish-licked texts to their former "expansiveness." The NY Times wades through this potential literary controversy pretty well. Gallagher's proposal for a Carver revision is posted by the NY Times, too. To be honest, the side by side comparisons do not bode well for the superiority of Carver's initial vision. Let's take a look.

Here is the ending of the story "One More Thing" in its unedited glory:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm again and once more picked up the suitcase. “I just want to say one more thing, Maxine. Listen to me. Remember this,” he said. “I love you. I love you no matter what happens. I love you too, Bea. I love you both.” He stood there at the door and felt his lips begin to tingle as he looked at them for what, he believed, might be the last time. “Good-bye,” he said.

“You call this love, L.D.?” Maxine said. She let go of Bea’s hand. She made a fist. Then she shook her head and jammed her hands into her coat pockets. She stared at him and then dropped her eyes to something on the floor near his shoes.

It came to him with a shock that he would remember this night and her like this. He
was terrified to think that in the years ahead she might come to resemble a woman he couldn’t place, a mute figure in a long coat, standing in the middle of a lighted room with lowered eyes.

“Maxine!” he cried. “Maxine!”

“Is this what love is, L.D.?” she said, fixing her eyes on him. Her eyes were terrible and deep, and he held them as long as he could.
Here's the ending as edited by Gordon Lish and published in the collection What We Talk About When We Talk About Love:

L.D. put the shaving bag under his arm and picked up the suitcase.

He said, “I just want to say one more

But then he could not think what it
could possibly be.
The unedited version is imbued with more closure, and a lot more melodramatics. You get more of a sense of how the story resolves (in how the relationship is dissolved). The actions are clunky, heavy handed, somewhat veering towards cliché. The edited version, in its concision, allows for the characters in the story to live on, to inhabit a space beyond the page, to, in a sense, endure. The notion of "one more thing" needed to be said becomes imbued with the same power as the more explosive unedited version, but this power and strength comes from what is not said, what is lost on L.D. The unedited version attempts to redeem L.D. while the edited version leaves the reading much more open. There's more respect for the reader in the edited version, and that respect, I think, allows the story to be more nuanced, dare I say more literary. Suddenly the characters are left within the reader, to resolve or not resolve their predicament. Suddenly this scene can be either a repeated, common incident among these characters, or the end to a strange family unit. The possibility of L.D. loving Maxine isn't lost, but what it is he has to say, what he's feeling, is, for the moment, lost on him. The story shows relationships for their mystery, their dysfunction, their intangibility. The longer version flattens these senses. The expansive version in effect creates minimal meanings, while the minimal version allows for a more meaningful story.

We're kind of stuck with a chicken or the egg situation here. Carver's reputation was founded on the stories in their leaner form. I wonder if he'd have had the same impact if they weren't given this treatment. They endure because of their lack of resolution. They stay with readers because there's so much that isn't said.

The Real Carver: Expansive or Minimal? [NY Times]

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Saturday, October 06, 2007

Callahan's Kind of Cool

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Assured, sharp, cool (tempered, comfortable in his own skin), Bill Callahan took to the stage of the Echoplex at around 11:20 last night and got down to business. Notably it wasn't (Smog) who performed. (Smog) being Callahan's moniker from his earliest days on the indie scene back in 1988. This time around, he's simply Bill Callahan, touring in support of his album "Woke on a Whaleheart." And Callahan, with a company of incredible musicians (bass, violin, and a percussionist who worked it standing up), put on an excellent show.

Callahan's songs all came off well, his trilling, mildly low voice ushered his lyrical loops while the music often started of spare and would build, slowly, to a cacophony made all the more impressive given the presence of only 4 people on stage. At times the sound seemed bigger than all of them. Like how the energy of the more propulsive track, "Diamond Dancer," was palpable. The percussionist, who heretofore was exemplar with his subtlety and controlled erratics and atmospherics, suddenly thundered a hard 4/4 beat, while the violinist hit a higher and more haunting register than she had with other songs, peeling askew and gorgeously shrill, with hints of lamenting vibrato. And of course, Bill, his expressive maw, hollering in this calculating, controlled sense.

And that was the essence of the whole show. It was experimental in that the songs all had the space to lumber and exist on a very mellow level. The music was imbued with a sense of composure, subsumed by the very necessity of the songs. That's what I was ultimately left with, Callahan's necessity. Necessary, as in, it's necessary to hear him sing to you, and because the venue was small and only half-filled, it felt like he was addressing us. It was necessary to hear him sing,"Oh I never really realized death is what it meant to make it on my own," in an excellent rendition of "Say Valley Maker." That was the line that stayed with me the most. He's saying that we're all in this together right now, in this moment (you can be alone when you die).

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Friday, October 05, 2007


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Holland Cotter exalts the "sleeper" exhibit, “Eternal Ancestors: The Art of the Central African Reliquary” at the Met in NYC. Cotter just short of begs museum goers to give up the modernist, western focused ghost, if only for a second, and, like, totally check out this little exhibit, because, you'll totally get something out of it, I swear. Which is an interesting thought because so much of what marks modern art is its lack of substance, or its theoreticalness, or its opaqueness. And suddenly, seemingly rudimentary, savage works, boring pedagogical fodder (thus the traditionally "sleeper" section of the museum) at least in this article, are suffused with meaning. The meaning being the historical connections between African and European treatments of their dead. Cotter somewhat bemoans the need for Euro connections, but hell, the Met has to get people in there somehow. And then:
The show ends theatrically too, though whether with tragedy or comedy is hard to say. One of the final images [above] is also one of the most startling: a reliquary figure from Congo. Standing six feet tall and made from layers and layers of cloth, including red European blankets, the figure is bulked up to resemble a giant female doll, all but nude, with brick-red skin and a smile of what looks like avid glee on her face.

Who is she? What is she? Several things. She is a portrait of someone who has died and also a receptacle for that person’s mummified body. She is an image of a specific category of ancestor, one recently dead. But she will fully claim status only after she has been buried with the relic she holds.

So she's ultimately a kind of metaphysical object, a body within a body that constitutes a whole only when a) she's dead and b) contained within her depiction. Crazy interesting. No sarcasm here. Cotter wins me over at the end of the piece with, " The lesson: In death, as in life, ambiguity rules." Yes! Ambiguity totally rules!

Keeping Watch Over the Dead [NYT]

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Monday, October 01, 2007


Bessie Smith singing, oh how she's singing, "Careless Love Blues."

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Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Grunge Binge #2: Taught Slackers

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Stills from the music video for "The Crooked Place" by Glass Eye (circa 1989).

Start with the image, and the simple goal of capturing the essence of "grunge" or whatever. The indefinable aesthetic essence of a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Find the video, which smacks as exemplary of this running definition's core. The video being "The Crooked Place" by Glass Eye. Welcome to Austin, Texas in the late 1980s.

"The crooked places may be made straight but the heart longs for the crooked place," sings Kathy McCarty donning a priest's collar. While singing this phrase her mouth transforms from stolid and effete to this sinister, beautiful smile, and then cut to the fairgrounds of some slacker carnival while these staccato guitar chords punctuate the chaos and cigarette smoking beauty of it all. Ah grunge.

And if this video feels familiar, perhaps that's because the Austin milieu from which this band and video came, is intrinsically tied to one of the town's most prominent cultural figures, filmmaker Richard Linklater. See, McCarty, along with other members of the band, appeared in Linklater's epic, free-ranging indie masterpiece Slacker. And that's McCarty singing a solo acoustic cover of the Daniel Johnston song "Living Life" at the end credits of Linklater's exemplar film Before Sunrise. Point being, this Glass Eye video, which I urge you to watch, is like the grunge holy grail, gravelly and emotionional (both the song and the video), dirty and disheveled and sleazy and full of motion, then haltings, then motion. Watch it:

PS. For a little bit of a "where is she now," you can read Kathy McCarty's personal history of her time and place (she's still making music) in the Austin scene. She wrote her account in this article from 2005 for the Austin Chronicle. Notably:
Long ago, I was in a local all-girl band called the Buffalo Gals, and we were sorta famous. I was the dorky one. Then I was in Glass Eye, here in town, and we were quite popular. That band was together for 10 years, and we won lots of awards and drew huge crowds. We made albums and the critics loved us. We were on MTV.

Like many a critics' darling, we never hit the Big Time. Big labels considered us "Impossible to Market," and perhaps that was true – if you're a slimy piece of shit label yes-man with crispy ashes for a soul. Or something. Either way, after 10 years of superhuman striving, we got all worn out with being fucked around, and broke up. It was sad. OK, I was devastated.

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Monday, September 17, 2007

Less is Moral

Great article in this week's NY Times Science section on a possible evolutionary, biological source for human morality:
So why has evolution equipped the brain with two moral systems when just one might seem plenty?

“We have a complex animal mind that only recently evolved language and language-based reasoning,” Dr. Haidt said. “No way was control of the organism going to be handed over to this novel faculty.”

He likens the mind’s subterranean moral machinery to an elephant, and conscious moral reasoning to a small rider on the elephant’s back. Psychologists and philosophers have long taken a far too narrow view of morality, he believes, because they have focused on the rider and largely ignored the elephant.

Dr. Haidt developed a better sense of the elephant after visiting India at the suggestion of an anthropologist, Richard Shweder. In Bhubaneswar, in the Indian state of Orissa, Dr. Haidt saw that people recognized a much wider moral domain than the issues of harm and justice that are central to Western morality. Indians were concerned with integrating the community through rituals and committed to concepts of religious purity as a way to restrain behavior.

On his return from India, Dr. Haidt combed the literature of anthropology and psychology for ideas about morality throughout the world. He identified five components of morality that were common to most cultures. Some concerned the protection of individuals, others the ties that bind a group together.

Indulge the possibilities with the whole article here:
Is ‘Do Unto Others’ Written Into Our Genes? [NYT]

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Thursday, September 13, 2007

Wake Up Your Windows!

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It's Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and a good reason to dredge up this rare New Year's Eve performance by Jeff Mangum, the man behind the band Neutral Milk Hotel. Mangum was an obscure late 90s indie rock figure whose last proper album, the brilliant In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, came out in 1998. But his songs don't seem to tire, particularly the one being performed in this video, "Engine," which can't be found on either of his albums but stands as one of his best songs, though honestly, they're all so good:

PS. Check out the incredible saw playing. Damn a well executed saw performance can make a good song great! Black Heart Procession kills on stage when the saw gets involved.

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Sunday, September 09, 2007


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Manohla Dargis meditates on the greatness of Jodie Foster in this essay in this weekend's NY Times. Dargis exalts Foster's trajectory as an actor, her androgyny, her performances-as-autobiography, the inevitability of her success, and argues interestingly that Foster is one of the few actors that can be called an auteur, a phrase usually attached to directors. My favorite passage recounts an interview between Andy Warhol and Foster back in 1976 for his magazine Interview:

Andy Warhol: So, when are you going to get married?

Jodie Foster: Never. I hope. It’s got to be boring — having to share a bathroom with someone.

Andy Warhol: Gee, we believe the same things.

Warhol was impressed that she had appeared in a commercial for Coppertone, running about in frilly white panties and a California tan, and asked if she had received any “nut mail” for doing “Taxi Driver.” And he mentioned “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” in which she played a scarily mature street kid, one with a foul mouth and a wayward mother. “You couldn’t tell whether you were a boy or girl.” Absurd, funny, sly and freakishly on target, Warhol seized on her appeal instantly, pinpointing everything that defined and has continued to define her screen presence: her beauty, talent, androgyny and ambition (she was excited about the publicity she had received for “Taxi Driver”), yes, but also a willingness to exploit her body and a taste, or perhaps instinct, for provocation.

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Monday, September 03, 2007

Belabor Day, Long Beach

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103 degrees today in Long Beach, Labor Day. Some tempers were bristly as the sun scorched hordes tussled over a parking space along Bluff Park (the vantage from which these photos were taken by me). The pic above is the north-facing view from the Bluff. The pic below is a panoramic vantage from the bluff, facing south.Click it to see the panorama at a larger size.

Click it, yeah? See it all big 'n bold 'n grandiosely large and long!

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Friday, August 31, 2007

You Can't Put Your Arms Around a Memory

If you thought you were hot on this heat wave weekend, watch this video and turn the heat up higher. Witness Ronnie Spector (60s pop star and former wife of crazy Phil Spector) seriously rocking out and feeling it, hard, on this superb cover of a Thunders song. This performance is from 1997 at Coney Island High. That's Joey Ramone on the right, belting it in the chorus. Something about the piercing, drowsy, vibrato in Ronnie's voice crushes me. She owns this song.

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Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ian McKellen Shat Self on Stage

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Okay, not be too sensationalist, it was in 1979 during his performance in the play "Bent" wherein Ian McKellen allegedly shat himself, but I'm getting ahead of myself. McKellen was the subject of a John Lahr profile in the New Yorker last week (Aug. 27 issue). The article isn't online, unfortunately. And to be honest, it's not the best of Lahr's profiles, or rather, it doesn't demonstrate what he does best with these profiles which is to eventually reveal something unprotected, unexpected, unmediated and human about his subject. He nailed it with Cate Blanchett. I loved her by the time that profile was through because she was given real dimension. She was funny. McKellen, it seems, was more impermeable. The meaty and interesting sections of the profile were offered by quotes from friends and colleagues. Most notably, writer Martin Sherman said of McKellen's performance in "Bent" (1979), a play about interned and humiliated gays in Germany during Hitler's reign:
He was sitting there, and he defecated. It was very subtle—but you saw in his body the spasm, which is what a person does in a period of such shock [referring here to the character having to kill his bf and then hump a dead girl]. It was one of the most stunning things I've ever seen.
Heavy. That's an actor for you. And this isn't even some sort of conceptual, confrontational theatre piece. The man, according to Sherman, simply shat himself (maybe that isn't so simple), to sell the scene, be true to the character. And that's all very interesting, but poor Lahr is ambling around England with McKellen who's working out the kinks in his performance of "King Lear," and Lahr can't seem to break through to what McKellen is really all about. By the end Lahr is exhausted seeming (on the page). He concedes, which is noble, in the second to last paragraph, "In all this legend of McKellen's brilliance, however, where was the shadow?" In comes McKellen's friend and profile cameo man (from a bit earlier on in the piece) Armistead Maupin, who offered the closing anecdote of the article. Maupin told Lahr this story about McKellen's grandmother believing he was only visiting her in her waning months because he wanted to sleep with the cleaning lady. When he explains that he's gay, she blows it off with, "So they say." The point of the anecdote is that, well, he had no other ulterior motive in seeing her, ostensibly, but even his beloved grandmother couldn't quite get what was going on inside of Ian. I'll be damned if Lahr could have done it. And if anyone could have, it would have been Lahr. He's one of the masters of the long form profile. But he didn't. Though, the Maupin anecdote at the end was a good save.

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Monday, August 27, 2007

Jonathan Ames Pens Decadent, Self-Indugent Book Review and That's Okay

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Anything Jonathan Ames does is news around here. The strapping man of letters, stage, Fionna Apple's heart, and most recently the boxing ring (pictured above) is a refreshing, singular, old-school New York cultural figure that you really don't see the likes of these days. Ames conflates artistic mediums like it's nobody's business. His whole oeuvre might well turn out to be some sort of insane mixed media autobiographical collage. Or maybe it's all an act: his drinking and drug problems, his queer obsessions. It doesn't really matter. Ames wrote a review for this weekend's NYT Book Review on Matt Ruff's book, Bad Monkeys. The review as review is negligible, but then, most book reviews (short form, weekend paper style) are a waste of time. Ames spends 2 of 6 paragraphs on his major issue with the novel, the acknowledgments being placed, distractingly, at the very end of the novel:
I can see nonfiction writers who have done a lot of research thanking numerous people, but novelists should put brief acknowledgments at the front of a book. I was savoring my last moments with “Bad Monkeys,” the reading equivalent of post-coital happiness, and then was yanked out of the book’s spell, which I would have liked to stay under for a little while longer, like a dream — or an illusion — I didn’t want to be woken from.
Firstly, Ames is right. As a reader you've just invested a big chunk of time and emotion into this work. When you're finished, you want to sit with it. If Cormac McCarthy would have rattled off thank yous at the end of his most recent novel The Road, I might not have had that 30-minute pure anguish weepfest that I did have when finishing that lovely terrible (in a really good way) book. On the other hand, Jonathan Lethem muddled the breezy, good read that was his last novel, You Don't Love Me Yet, by tossing in the thank yous in the end. I was trying to figure out what I just read, about to determine why I should care, when suddenly I'm looking at names outside the cosmology of the text, though they obviously informed the text (I should confess that I know one of the names so the placement was even more distracting). Point being, acknowledge, briefly, before your novel, okay? I can only really handle a note on the text's typeface (which is stupid but at least innocuous) once the book is through.

Secondly, notice how in the Ames quote up above he manages to throw a sexual analogy, his "post-coital happiness," into the book review, and how that analogy has nothing to do with the substance of the book, only how it made him feel. Classic, self-indulgent, solipsistic Ames. Not many writers can pull off the self-reflexive me me me narrative bent as well as he can. And he's dating Fiona Apple. And he boxes. So. Yay Ames!!

P.S. Photograph by Laurel Ptak purloined from Gawker's series of pics from Ames' boxing match against writer Craig Davisdon at Gleason's Boxing Gym in New York on July 24th of this year.

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Tuesday, August 21, 2007

de Young, and the Rest(less)

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John Singer Sargent's A Dinner Table at Night, on display as part of the permanent collection of the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

Last week I had the pleasure of revisiting the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, San Francisco. A year later, the museum itself is blending more and more into the park's greenery as the metal oxidizes on the stunning structure's exterior.

Just through with the featured exhibition of Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs (I'll get to those in just a moment), I came across the above painting on display as part of the museum's permanent collection of American paintings. John Singer Sargent's, A Dinner Table at Night, 1884. I knew nothing of the painter or the work, but was drawn to it beyond all others in the room. Something about the red permeating everything, then a closer look reveals the woman's face to be kid of blurry. Then the silvery touches on the lamps and the glint on the decanter. And we can't ignore the smoking man cropped off the right edge. And see her hand gripping her glass? Is this the first glass of the evening? There's something tender and strange about this painting. It's either conjuring the mild glow of romance, but better yet, maybe it's the warm feeling of a good glass of wine kicking in, or a sense of isolation or longing or nostalgia. Not sure. But the painting is incredible.

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Hiroshi Sugimoto retrospective show at the de Young Museum, San Francisco.

The Sugimoto retrospective was interesting, masterful, if not a little sterile in its detached and methodical experimentation. The above seascapes were mounted on a long, dark wall. Each shot a different sea, calibrated to align on the horizon. Each sea is different and alike in ways. The work is meditative and compelling taken all of a piece.

On the other side of this long wall/corridor was my favorite of his pieces, Sea of Buddha, 1995 (below). The 48 photographs of 1001 sculptures were taken in a 12th-century temple in Kyoto Japan. Each sculpture is different with each head adorned with a mini cosmology of smaller heads and shrines. The effect of all the photographs displayed in a row was thrilling. These sculptures, over 900 years old, remind me of the female automaton in Fritz Lang's film Metropolis. I was stunned by the ornate art deco feeling I was getting from this. But looking close removed that sense somewhat, revealing these faces and posing questions. Who made these statues? Are these faces based on real people? Why must I analogize this work to a 20th century movement? Is this sense intentional? Does is matter?

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The presentation of the statues, and all the photographs in the exhibit, was flawless. My major complaint was that the wall-text accompanying each section consisted of Sugimoto's words on the pieces. He came off as obtuse and heavy-handed. I would have preferred a more objective curatorial voice, but that's me.

Other notable works were Sugimoto's blurry shots of famous works of architecture (Chrysler Tower, World Trade Center, etc...), as well as shots of movie theaters for which he held open the camera shutter for the entire length of the film, revealing pure white on the screen and a glow subtly lighting the environment from the screen giving the environments a silken texture. And all the theaters were empty creating an overall beautiful yet cold effect, like the entire retrospective, really. But the show and the visit to the museum provided what museums should do best: musings.

P.S. Seargent and Henry James were friends, soul mates even!
Here is a NY Times article by Deborah Weisgall from 1997 chronicling Sargent's relationship with novelist Henry James. Both were American artists flourishing abroad. I like this line, "Like James, Sargent tells us everything about his subjects, only to compound their essential mystery."

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Movements, Rapid Eye

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"E-Bow the Letter," by R.E.M. From the Album New Adventures in Hi Fi released September 10, 1996

R.E.M.'s New Adventures in Hi Fi marked a smooth, assured tonal shift for the band. And "E-Bow the Letter" is both a remarkable song and video. The lyrics are impressionistic Michael Stipe at his best, delivering his trademark word spillages, images, mixed metaphors. "Aluminum, tastes like fear / Adrenaline pulls us near..." sung by Stipe in the chorus while Patti Smith drawls gravelly, consolingly, longingly in the background, "I'll take you over, Baby." Her voice is either the song's neurotic-emotional love object, or the narrator's other, stronger, more wicked self. Taken that way, the song becomes a conflation of the tremulous masculine with the snarling feminine. This is no quaint love duet. The interplays here transcend normal romance. And the video shows cityscapes, parking lots, the band practicing before walls of little white lights, Stipe writing lyrics left-handedly, Smith on a train, Smith at the station.

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It's almost as if she's traveling to Stipe, but you sense she'll never get there. And if she does there will be no embrace, maybe something like an awkward handshake. Or maybe she'll just curl up in a chair while he keeps on writing, only to realize that he is writing about her in the chair and when he looks up she (part of himself, in a sense) isn't there and never was, she's still at the train station, standing, waiting while people walk past, singing, "I'll take you over, Baby.... I'll take you over, Baby..."

Watch it:

P.S. Here is a great 2004 interview with Michael Stipe, conducted by photographer Wolfgang Tillmans for BUTT. Stipe discusses his ambiguous sexuality, among other things. Also, Stipe has a site for his photographs. Check out this one of him called "frightening experiment in north carolina."

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