Reading too deeply into these things since 1981

On the tenth day of Christmas, Ryan gave to us…

"Jazz Records," Everybody Loves Raymond

Before I begin, I need to make it absolutely clear that I was hesitant in writing about this episode. Not because I didn’t have much to say, or because it didn’t affect me; quite the opposite in both of those regards, to be perfectly honest. It’s just that everything I’m going to reveal in this article is so pretentious and awful and disgusting that you’ll loathe me to the point of sheer hatred.

You’re going to doubt the authenticity of what I’m about to admit, either due to denial or the hope that I’m not legally insane. I would make fun of anybody else for writing this same deconstruction, so I’ll wearily admit to my hypocrisy now. This is your warning. I’m sorry to spoil the grace and holiday charm you were possibly expecting, but this is going to be the worst thing you have ever read.

An episode of Everybody Loves Raymond changed my life.


The show in question revolves around Ray trying to make up for a disaster during one of his childhood Christmases – the accidental destruction of his father’s Jazz records. He purchases digital replicas of the music he ruined those many years ago, but the new technology scares his father and he’s insistent on having nothing to do with them.

This is where I used to listen to ’em. I’d come home from a hard day’s work, your mother would mix me a drink, I’d come down here, put on the hi-fi, and let Duke and Dizzy take me away. …From your mother.

Without going into too much detail, growing up I wasn’t what you’d refer to as a model student. We’re all aware of that humiliating rebellious stage most teenagers go through, and mine was just as embarrassing. I rarely showed up to class, soon found myself expelled, and spent the rest of my days doing nothing society would deem constructive. This should be the part of the story where I find God, or journey through a traumatic experience and rejuvenate as a stronger and changed person. In reality, I watched a mediocre television sitcom.

"Jazz Records," Everybody Loves Raymond

With Ray’s remastered albums failing Frank, Robert saves the day by giving him some of the original vinyl copies he lost long ago. The episode closes with Frank finally listening to his old records again, sitting relaxed in his chair, lost in the music, naught a whisper emerging from the other Barones (a rare occurrence, by the way). The only sound we can hear is “Bye Bye Blackbird,” played with the grain and warmth Frank had been looking for since his records were originally destroyed.

“Now that’s music,” he remarks. And I agreed. It was. I didn’t know why at the time, but it was different to any musical performance I had been exposed to before. During my entire life I had no interest in any “deeper” art forms (again, it’s hard to write this without sounding pretentious), but from that final scene things began to change. I was moved. I wanted to delve deeper into the jazz culture. I didn’t make the connection at the time, but I wanted to turn my life around. And then the studio audience laughed.

It’s weird, because it clearly wasn’t the first time I was exposed to jazz. The Simpsons, one of my favorite and most re-watched series ever, had produced numerous episodes on the genre, yet I never thought twice about the stuff. And yet here it was, touching my soul in a bloody episode of Raymond.

One hobby lead to another. From jazz I found myself interested in art, and then English, and soon I finally discovered the joy of learning – somewhat regretting all of the classes I skipped back in high school. I made up for them with university, and these days when I come home from work, I relax and listen to my jazz records, just like Frank. Not because he did it, mind you – this article doesn’t have to be that depressing. I find it’s the best way to begin the ending of my day, a chance to reflect, meditate, and enthrall myself in the music.

"Jazz Records," Everybody Loves Raymond

Okay, so I opened this article with some humor – I’m more than content with the fact that this show changed my life, since being largely influenced or affected by any type of media is a common occurrence. Even though I like to keep myself educated, these days I don’t wall myself off from anything I’d preconceive as a waste of time. My girlfriend wanted to take me to the ballet recently – I said no to that, but, like, if she suggested the opera or something, I would have said yes because who knows what such a performance might bring? It could change my life, or it could do nothing. Either way, I had the experience.

I was never a huge Everybody Loves Raymond fan, but had always thought Peter Boyle did a marvelous job, the actor also being the only cast member who I held an appreciation for outside of the series.

I think that’s why I was affected by the episode more than I should have been, as well. Frank is a cold, angry, emotionless character, and yet his jazz music would break down all of these traits and leave us with somebody completely different. I admit it — it was a beautiful thing to see.

Tomorrow: It’s that one where the character isn’t really a big fan of Christmas, and is kind of a jerk about it, but then learns to enjoy it. You’ve probably never heard of it.

I’m honored to have the chance to speak here with Andrew Apanov, the brains behind the Dotted Music digital marketing agency. Andrew’s latest — and largest — project is a series of short, documentary-like videos called Stand Above the Noise. It’s this fascinating endeavor that we discuss mostly below, but we also find time to ponder alternate histories, desert island meal allowances, and, of course, the accordion.

1) What, in your opinion, separates Dotted Music from any other digital marketing agency?

I think there are two things to it. The first is how the agency came out and the second is how it is organised.

We didn’t start as a music business entity, or a business at all. And we didn’t create a blog to attract new clients as it usually happens. Instead, the blog has been the core of the brand. I launched Dotted Music with an aim to educate musicians around the world, not having a single idea what it would turn into three years later.

Then I just felt the need to participate in developing music careers on a deeper level, and so the agency and my consulting offers emerged, but education is still our highest priority.

The other thing is our “location independence.” We are all other the world: the company is registered in the States, I’m in Kaliningrad, Russia, just as our designers, my business partner is in Canada, our blog’s editor is between Scotland and Cyprus, marketing managers are in New York City, and so on. Yet, thanks to technology (and I know this sounds banal in 2012), it is possible to do a lot without a centralised physical office.

2) The big project for you right now seems to be your documentary, Stand Above the Noise. Roughly how much time have you invested in the film so far?

This is our biggest educational project by date, just as the most time-consuming one for sure! Well, we started filming it in Kaliningrad in June 2011, and have been conducting interviews in various cities across Europe since then (and continue to do so around each two months). Just to make it clear, it’s not a full-fledged documentary film, but a series of interviews run on our YouTube channel. And although this project is self-funded and we have been on a fairly tight budget, we’ve filmed a couple hundred gigabytes of Full HD footage by now and are not going to stop.

3) You certainly have a knack for great names, between Dotted Music and Stand Above the Noise. What is the story behind each of these names?

Damn, this question made my day. I have been waiting for a compliment on either of those for so long! Yet seriously, it will be difficult to remember how exactly the Dotted Music name came along. I was just looking for something original, and guess the inspiration came from dotted notes in sheet music (reminded me that years ago I actually knew that stuff). Then, I love minimal style pretty much in everything, and a dot& worked perfectly for a simplistic design of the logo and the website. And of course, going further, the music industry is in such a beautifully unstable form right now that naming a blog dedicated to this business “solid music” or something in the vein would be misleading.

Stand Above the Noise is a bit of an “in your face” type of title, but I wanted it to be the statement. Initially, due to my love for rather obscure names, the working title of the documentary was Ear-Pleasing Noise. My designer, who is behind the neat graphics used in the series by the way, told me that it didn’t seem to work that well, and so I started the brainstorming process again. I knew I wanted to keep the “noise” in the title, another friend of mind suggested that “above” or “beyond” could fit the title well and so here we are, with Stand Above The Noise.

4) What do you think was the most eye-opening interview you conducted for Stand Above the Noise?

I can think of few. Last year, when I was working with an artist from France and had to dig into the French music business, I was impressed how fundamentally everything seemed to be organised to support musicians. When I talked to an indie guitarist Chris Martins in Paris though, it turned out that everything was not that shiny for a lot of music acts in the country. A conversation with Corinna Poeszus from Universal Publishing Production in Berlin was also extremely insightful. There I realised the growing potential of music licensing, or B2B approach of selling music as I would call it. And it’s booming right now. Of course there was a lot of other great interviews and I feel that the most insightful ones are yet to happen.

5) Name the one person, living or dead, that you wish you could have interviewed for Stand Above the Noise.

There is a myriad of awesome people in the industry who I would love to (and will! ha) chat with, but besides, it would be interesting to interview those mainstream stars who do fantastic job with engaging audiences of astronomic scales, like Rihanna or Lady Gaga.

6) Describe the evolution of the film. From what I understand, it started off as a much smaller project.

It started as a slightly different project. We wanted to create a documentary film, but the more we worked on it the more I realised it should be more than a film that not too many artists will watch anyway. People don’t have time to watch long videos on YouTube nowadays. Plus, I wanted it to be a long-time project, so a transformation into the interview series was a decision I never regretted about. By the way, we are also airing each new episode live, with my commentary and special invited guests — will see how well it’ll go!

7) You mentioned your wife Katya as being invaluable to the film. With her experience in broadcast journalism, that’s understandable. What do you feel she brought to the project?

She brought the project to life. Although it’s always me setting up and conducting interviews, she’s been directing, filming, and editing everything. Katya has also been helping me with doing the interviews professionally. Another thing is being filmed on camera. I suck at it. And I feel really sorry for my wife who needs to take dozen takes of a one-minute video of me. But I’m improving, promise!

8) Describe what a version of Stand Above the Noise would look like without her involvement.

I must say, this project would never see the light without her involvement.

9) You used to play the accordion. Where would your life be now if you had stuck with that as your primary mode of expression?

Oh my, I have no idea what career I could have as an accordionist, or what a regular accordionist career is at all. The last two times I saw an accordion player on MTV were that Gusttavo Lima live recording and a music video of a Finnish folk hip hop band — and I’m so grateful I am not involved in those anyhow! With all respect to the instrument, of course. I had sincerely enjoyed playing Bach (this is where my love for deep bass was born I guess).

10) What is the seminal accordion recording that should represent the instrument to all of mankind?

Some compositions written for organ sound excellent on accordion, but I won’t name anything specific.

11) You have experience managing acts, which is a far trickier business than many people might realize. What is one band or musician that you feel has been severely mismanaged? How would you have managed them differently?

I’m glad to have this experience, and am even more glad to be able to focus on marketing aspects of artists’ careers instead of managing them. Being an old-fashioned, full-fledged manager is a tough job.

This year we worked with a fantastic UK guitarist and singer-songwriter Dave Sharman, helping him with web presence and designing his new website. He’s been around for over 20 years, but I had never heard about him until early 2012. This is a good example of a very talented musician being mismanaged back in the days, though hopefully everything will be developing way better with the release of his new album.

12) What is your favorite Bob Dylan song?

I would rather name tracks where Bob Dylan’s songs were sampled, since unfortunately I don’t have any favorites among his own.

13) What documentaries — music or otherwise — have influenced your work on Stand Above the Noise?

Surprisingly, the idea of doing our own documentary hit us while watching Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey sometime in 2011. Speaking of more relevant films, PressPausePlay is such a perfectly made one.

14) You have the chance to go back in your life and change one thing. Absolutely anything, but only one thing. What would it be?

I would start my own venture much, much earlier.

15) Apart from yourself and your wife, who do you think had the largest impact on Stand Above the Noise as a finished product?

We are surrounded by a great team of supporters, but I want to highlight what our graphic designer has done, as well as Sam Agini, our blog’s editor who’s been helping with the copy. Artists who have contributed their music (Fanu, PLAYMA just to name a few) to the project deserve a separate mention. We are very grateful to everyone who’s been involved.

16) Do you feel that the increased interest in digital music has changed the focus of fans? Are they more likely to cherrypick individual songs than listen to complete albums, or experience a musician’s entire career as a more long-form journey?

This may sound paradoxical, but although music matters more than ever (you won’t stand above the noise with shitty music, fans will simply not eat it), music becomes just one of many assets defining your success. Albums, singles, streams, free downloads — you mix it all with other content and offerings and you build a strategy, a story behind yourself and your music, and a long-form journey just as you put it. People need way more than just the music these days, they want to be a part of a tribe. They want to hear from a leader of the tribe all the time, and they want to be entertained. Too bad many musicians don’t realise that success comes with a lot more than writing and performing.

17) In one sentence, identify what you feel is the biggest issue in the music industry today. Then, in one more sentence, propose a solution.

The global music industry is too selfish. It needs to better listen to an artist and to the one who rules the market now: a music fan.

18) You traveled to many places to obtain your footage and interviews for Stand Above the Noise. Was there any one moment you had that stands out as bizarre? Describe the strangest experience you had while preparing the film.

The strangest and the most confusing experience we’ve been having so far is microphones not working properly. We’ve tried five by now. In Paris, for example, 80% of interviews were massively corrupted due to the gear issues. You can guess how we felt listening to the recordings back at home.

19) You’re on an island. You have no chance of escape. Would you rather have enough food to fill your belly every day but no music, or just enough food to keep you from starving in addition to a source of music?

My answer will be rational: it depends on what music I would have to listen and for how long I would be doomed to stay on the freaking island. If the music is bad I would agree to starve with less food just to not listen to it, and if the “vacation” wouldn’t be too long — it is useful to let ears rest a bit and enjoy the sounds of the nature. Or maybe I would stick to more food anyway, rather inventing my own music instruments and organising raving events for the most biased audience ever (me).

20) What’s next for Dotted Music?

We’ve got a lot in the works for this and next year! Watch out for the Stand Above The Noise series, new affordable marketing products for musicians, new services, and of course lots of new free content. We will release a social media iPhone app soon…yes, you hear it first!

BONUS: Say anything to my readers that you haven’t gotten the chance to say above!

If you are an artist, stick to your art no matter what you read on the interwebs. There is only one way to become successful at what you do — and it’s never to stop or give up.

Thanks again to Andrew for taking the time. It’s been an honor and I look forward to the series!

We are now introduced — though not immediately — to the other driving narrative here in The Life Aquatic. Up to this point, the film has been suggesting that our story will be one of revenge, with Steve seeking out and destroying the monster that ate his friend. And just in case we’ve forgotten this, Captain Zissou gets a big, dramatic moment in which he declares his intent to his crew…just before we see those intentions derailed by the arrival of probably-his-son, Ned.

This is a Wes Anderson film, however, so when a lost and confused son meets at last with his distant father, we know that that’s going to take narrative precedence over anything we might have seen already. Sure enough, it’s the relationship between Steve and Ned that drives the film, pulls us forward, and provides the characters with their real journey.

The scene opens with a small after-after-party aboard the Belafonte. As we’ve discussed previously, this is at last a chance for Steve to exercise some all-important control over his night, as he is in charge of the guest list and even has his staff shuttling guests to and from the ship in dinghies. It’s an isolated party for an isolated man, and he’s using the water as a buffer between himself and the world he does not care to understand. They say that no man is an island, but Steve Zissou seems to aim to be the first.

The after-after-party seems to run smoothly enough, and it gives us a lovely glimpse into the baseline operational structure of Team Zissou: Pelé performs music from the sidelines as Renzo the soundman records him, youthful Ogata and Anne-Marie socialize with guests, interns man the bar and serve appetizers, and Steve shuts himself — yet another level of isolation — in the cabin, away from anything that might be going on outside, even when it’s a party in his honor.

We’ll be discussing the individual members of Team Zissou more in the next section, but it’s enough to point out now that the serious electrical faults of the Belafonte are currently being repaired by Steve’s camera man and an intern whose name he doesn’t know.

Pelé’s song here serves as a sort of Rosetta Stone for the rest of his music in the film. By opening the scene on a long establishing shot of the Belafonte, Anderson gives us very little to focus on apart from what we’re hearing, which happens to be the instantly (and universally) recognizable intro to “Ziggy Stardust.”

The song itself isn’t particularly appropriate to the event or even the film itself — apart from some thematic science-fiction resonance that we may discuss later on — but it’s important that we hear this one first, simply because it’s recognizable. It’s a rare thing indeed to find an “obscure” Bowie song in Pelé’s repertoire, but the acoustic arrangements and Portuguese lyrics will render many of them unrecognizable (or at least less-easily recognizable) to anything other than the biggest fans of that androgynous icon.

So we get “Ziggy Stardust,” a song well known by anyone who’s ever turned on the radio, with one of the most distinctive opening riffs in rock history. The audience is now in the mind for Bowie, and it will make it that much easier to pick up on the vague, later echoes of “Rebel Rebel” or “Rock N Roll Suicide.”

Steve’s isolation is interrupted by Oseary, who delivers the ominous news that Larry Amin will have to consider the profitability of Steve’s next film before he decides to bankroll it. It says a lot that a benign and rational consideration of such a thing could be seen as ominous to Team Zissou, and Oseary confirms that it’s been nine years since Steve’s last “hit documentary.” One gets the feeling that by the lowered standards and ambitions of Zissou and his crew that “hit” is a relative term indeed, and might as well be replaced with the word “profitable.”

Here we also see a bit more of life aboard the ship. Klaus’s nephew Werner is the only one at all still enraptured by the magic of what these explorer / documentarians do, and he toys excitedly with some unseen creature that’s kept in an aquarium. Everybody else simply waits for the night to be over, whiling away the evening so that they can return to their almost perversely mundane “adventures.”

Klaus and Wolodarsky play backgammon, and Eleanor, quite tellingly, engages herself in a game of solitaire. Nobody offers to show the child around the ship, and it’s his responsibility to occupy himself blandly, as the adults are doing. If the actual film Steve premiered tonight didn’t sap any excitement that Werner might have had at meeting Steve, seeing his team hiding from their own prior glories and shruggingly postponing an electrical catastrophe certainly will.

Speaking of which, the potential of a ship-wide electrical failure when they could be anywhere at sea, under any circumstances, says a lot about the danger this crew is in, operating under a disinterested captain like Steve. The blackouts are played as a sort of rolling punctuation to important moments in the film we’re watching, but they’re also a harbinger of danger to come. See too Steve resuscitating a nearly-drowned Ned. What’s played for laughs up front can result in real and irreversible loss down the line.

Steve pushes Oseary to push Amin, and when he does not get what he wants he declares again his intentions to avenge Esteban, and storms out of the cabin. This is where he meets Ned.

Firstly, and interestingly, Ned addresses Steve as “Captain Zissou.” There’s no much we can say about this now, but it’s worth keeping in mind that to everybody else, including his own crew, he’s just “Steve.” This is a term of respect Steve has likely not heard for a long time.

Ned introduces himself, and Steve is immediately — and visibly — thrown off guard. He recognizes the name of Ned’s mother, and freezes. How much Steve actually knew about Ned prior to this moment is a subject of much contradiction over the course of the film, and even, in fact, in this very exchange. Steve’s “I’ve heard of you” suggests a belief on his part that Ned may actually be his son, but his “She never contacted me” seems to leave him — at least in terms of his own conscience — clear of responsibility. It’s his selfish, yet personally justifiable, way of having maintained a distance for this boy’s entire life. The responsibility for contact was Catherine’s, not Steve’s, and since there was no contact, Ned wasn’t Steve’s problem.

But his “I’ve heard of you” tells a different kind of story. One of unconscious drift, perhaps. One of a man who drinks and smokes and pops pills to force things out of his mind, but can never quite forget them. He doesn’t recognize Ned when he first meets him not because he’s never thought about him (as evidenced by the fact that he kept young Ned’s letter), but because the reality does not overlap with whatever phantom child Steve might have imagined to himself. It’s safe to say that whatever Steve pictured, it wasn’t a 30-year-old co-pilot.

Reality intrudes. Esteban was eaten. Steve’s films no longer make money. Reality intrudes.

Owen Wilson’s accent here rings somewhat false, and yet his earnest gentleness keeps it from veering into Foghorn Leghorn territory. It’s no more real than the sea creatures we’ve discussed…exaggerations and caricatures of the world we know. We need them to be exaggerated so that we — no matter who we are — can stand apart from them. The sea creatures can’t be familiar to any oceanographers in the audience, and Ned can’t be familiar to any native Kentuckians. This is a world Anderson created, and we are all observers. We are all at a distance. We’re not allowed to get too close.

Ned’s mother’s death is a sustainment of an echo that runs through many of Anderson’s films: Max Fischer’s mother, Royal Tenenbaum’s mother, Ari and Uzi Tenenbaum’s mother, the Whitman patriarch, Sam Shakusky’s parents…even the comparatively light Fantastic Mr. Fox toys with the idea of losing a parent. In the case of Max, he also lost his mother to cancer, and cancer is what Royal pretends to be killing him. Another character in that film, Henry Sherman, lost his own wife to cancer. Cancer, being both an unforeseeable intrusion of reality and something that kills quietly from within, fits perfectly into Anderson’s narrative wheelhouse.

Leaving nothing to chance at this point in his life — and this evening — Steve outright asks Ned, “You’re supposed to be my son, right?” He’s ensuring that they’re on the same page, and Ned’s answer is that he isn’t sure…but he did want to meet Steve. Just in case.

It’s a brilliant dance of emotional distancing. Ned is meeting both his father and his hero for the first time, and Steve is uniquely equipped to disappoint in both capacities. Neither takes the initiative to close the gap — though we do have to give Ned credit for coming all this way “just in case,” which is something Klaus calls him on later — and Steve’s just-out-of-frame handshake is a masterstroke of social desperation. Steve is meeting his son for the first time, and like Gabriel Conroy offering money to the maid he’s offended, knows not what to do but knows he must do something.

Steve excuses himself and we see the first of two long, emotionally-charged strolls he takes in the film to the accompaniment of a David Bowie song. This is Bowie’s original version of “Life on Mars?” here, though Pelé will also sing it later.

Taking both performances of “Life on Mars?” in tandem, and considering their contexts, they reveal a subtle and somewhat crude joke. Both times we hear “Life on Mars?” it is during a conversation between two characters about whether or not Steve could have fathered Ned. The first time it’s between Steve and Ned themselves, and the next time it’s between Eleanor and Jane. When Bowie asks about life on Mars, he’s wondering about the possibility of finding living organisms in a lifeless sphere. When Steve’s paternity is in question, they wonder about the possibility of finding sperm in his lifeless testicles. It’s a crude grounding of scientific wonder, but it’s hardly devoid of magic or majesty.

Steve returns and apologizes for his behavior — frame that moment, because it isn’t likely to happen again — and is approached by a much happier, and presumably drunker, Oseary. He has good news for Steve, as he spoke with Si Pearlman (whose surname is another passive reference to the undersea world), the editor of Oceanographic Explorer magazine.

Later we will see — in one of this film’s rare static insert shots — that Captain Hennessey has already been featured on the cover of this magazine, and this is Steve’s chance to regain, however briefly, the same level of exposure. A moment ago, in the cabin, Steve would have had something to say to this. Now, having encountered Ned, he ignores it — along with Oseary’s request to be nice to the magazine’s reporter — in order to introduce “probably [his] son.” Oseary, through untold years of experience working with Steve, has probably taken to handling all of his unexpected and inexplicable meetings with a bright, and hollow, “How delightful!” as he does here.

It’s the first of two back-to-back introductory embarrassments for Ned.

The next is a very brief scene when his backstory is explained to Eleanor by Steve, while Eleanor has no idea that he’s standing right beside her. It’s a brilliantly comic moment and it makes glorious use of Anderson’s signature blocking, as the entire joke is there in the frame but isn’t revealed until Steve’s final line. Eleanor also has a fantastic internal moment when she juggles disgust for Steve’s behavior here with a polite greeting to Ned.

As with Oseary, we get the feeling Eleanor has been through something similar many times before, and is used to being forced into conflicting emotions by her husband. In public, she must handle them both. In private, her options expand a bit, and we’ll see the result of that before the Belafonte officially sets sail.

In the background Pelé performs “Oh! You Pretty Things” which is barely audible and arguably unrecognizable without the complete soundtrack version. He also played a song during Steve and Ned’s meeting that I still can’t make out, which suggests that Anderson chartered a little too much material from Seu Jorge, and then was unable to find a natural home for every track. Rather than leave much of it on the cutting room floor (though some tracks certainly were), we hear Pelé tunes in strange places like this, wedged between grander moments, and relegated to an almost inaudible background. It’s sloppy soundtracking, but a natural extension of the stylistic musical collision we discussed in the first post of this series.*

We end with a short exchange between Ned and Steve standing above the action on the Belafonte. I’m not sure what this part of the ship is called, but it’s the same part that a ghostly figure of Ned is standing upon at the end of the film…which we’ll likely discuss more then, of course. (In the meantime please let me know what this is called, so I don’t have to sound so danged stupid all the time.)

Steve offers marijuana to Ned, who refuses, and lights a pipe instead. Similar, and yet different. We’ll see more of this distanced similarity between the two as the film progresses.

Ned reveals that he’s been a member of the Zissou Society since he was 11, and Steve feigns surprise. As we’ll see later, Steve already knows this (confirmed by the letter of Ned’s that he kept), and Ned already knows that he knows (confirmed by Catherine Plimpton before she died). Here they are feeling each other out…each gauging what the other knows, what the other will admit to knowing, and how far the other might go to conceal what he knows.

The fact that Ned was once a young fan of Steve’s (from his glory days, as according to Oseary Steve’s films became unprofitable around the time Ned was 21, meaning Ned had a full decade of enjoying Team Zissou output in its prime) sets him up as a reassuring whisper from Steve’s past…a past that grows more distant by the day. We’ll talk about this more when we meet Jane, who functions as an unwelcome reflection of Steve’s present. (Both of which, and more, feed into last time‘s discussion of The Life Aquatic as A Christmas Carol. More on that to come, surely.)

Ned reveals also that he’s currently a pilot (well, co-pilot) for Air Kentucky, which gives Steve another — and always welcome — chance to posture when he dismissed Kentucky as “landlocked.”

It’s the chance for Steve to play a part…a caricature of oceanographic explorers that you might encounter on Saturday mornings, perhaps one paying a visit to Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.

It’s not real…it’s an act. It’s a purposeful embodiment of what people expect to see and hear, so that they won’t feel inclined to dig any deeper. This will resurface again in his first interview with Jane. Favorite color, blue. Favorite food, sardines. Kentucky, landlocked.

But Jane digs deeper. And in her presence, so does Ned.

Steve talks Eleanor into letting Ned come along because it will be a very special opportunity for all of them. What he doesn’t know is that the opportunity is deep inside himself, and not deep within the sea that surrounds them.

Next: Let Steve tell you about his boat.

* Oh, and on the subject of music, the version of “Life on Mars?” that plays here has an extended piano introduction, and it’s genuinely an improvement on an already gorgeous song. Does anybody know where this comes from? Was the intro recorded and appended by somebody working on the film, or does it come from Bowie’s own rarities or outtakes somewhere? In case you can’t tell I’m asking because I WANT IT.

Friend of the website Dave is hosting a 1990s blogfest today. He’s managed to rope quite a few great bloggers into this (complete list and his own choices here), and we’re also now selling cosmetics door to door on his behalf. The idea is to choose one thing — one anything — as your favorite thing from each year from 1990 – 1999, and write a short bit about it. He also did one for the 2000s, which was pre-Noiseless Chatter I think, but since everything released in that time period was garbage you missed nothing. (And, honestly, I’ll probably end up doing a 2000 – 2010 one just for the heck of it.) Anyway, enjoy…thanks to Dave for hosting this, and let me know what some of your own choices might have been in the comments below. Or tell me I’m wrong in a profane way…I always like that!

1990 – Vineland

I feel more than a little intellectually guilty for only including one novel in my year-by-year rundown, but I’d have to say that the 1990s weren’t particularly well served in a literary sense. Fortunately, though, the decade opens with perhaps the warmest, most welcoming book my favorite author ever wrote. Vineland takes place in 1984, but is very much a love letter to the 1960s. It introduces us to Zoyd Wheeler, a cultural isolate from that lost decade of love, sex and freedom, who’s been reduced to throwing himself through windows to keep up a stream of mental disability checks. It’s an innately comic setup, but the backward, twisting path through time, loss and inevitability is perfectly heartbreaking. Zoyd’s reliable antics, after all, began as an act of genuine desperation when his wife left him, and it’s only been the steady march of time that’s diluted them to meaningless repetitions of what once meant so much. That’s the angle Pynchon takes as he explores the effect aging has had on this world, and ours. It’s Zoyd’s daughter who pulls the narrative along — or backward — as she uncovers, thread by thread, who her mother was. And who her mother became. And, if she learns enough from what she finds, how to avoid a similar fate for herself. Pynchon’s narratives hurdle unfailingly toward doom, but Vineland is the one that reminds you that life is always worth living…regardless of where you might actually end up.

1991 – A Link to the Past

It’s a fact: the Super Nintendo is the single greatest video game console of all time. Consequently, the early to mid 1990s were a veritable goldmine for gamers. While the NES introduced us to massive numbers of endearing and enduring characters, the SNES took everything at least one step further, and managed to refine and build upon game mechanics without overcomplicating them, or losing sight of what made them work. Super Mario World, Super Metroid and Super Castlevania IV (among so many others) all represented a realization of promise, a step deeper into fantastic and complex universes that we always knew existed just below the surface. But it’s A Link to the Past that really stands out. Taking absolutely everything that worked about the first Zelda game and disposing of everything that didn’t, A Link to the Past laid the precise groundwork for every game in the series that followed, regardless of console. And while certain later entries, such as Majora’s Mask or Wind Waker, attempted to pull the series in other directions, it’s A Link to the Past that rightfully gets the credit for building the solid foundation and framework that gave those later installments the room to expand. The graphics are gorgeous, the music is great, and even if the challenge is somewhat lacking, every new secret you find on the map feels earned and satisfying. I love A Link to the Past. It’s one of perhaps two or three games in the history of the universe that does literally nothing wrong, and it’s a perfect example of what made the SNES so great.

1992 – Glengarry Glen Ross

For a movie with no action, Glengarry Glen Ross is riveting. For a movie with two locations, Glengarry Glen Ross feels enormous. And for a movie with so little at stake, Glengarry Glen Ross feels profound. It’s a story about selling real estate, and how difficult a racket that can be, but it’s also a story about despair, about self-preservation, about pride, about confidence, and about what it means to be a man. It’s all of these things, and it’s more, and the same answer is never given to the same question twice. When a nameless emissary drops by the sales office to address unsatisfactory work, he motivates the sales force by setting them at each other’s throats: the two most successful salesmen will be rewarded to varying degrees, and the other two will lose their jobs. What follows is a single, seemingly-unbroken narrative that spans the rest of that night and the next morning. To say any more than that would likely both give away too much and artificially enhance the importance of anything that happens. The magic — and the story — is all in the dialogue. Glengarry Glen Ross began as a stage play, and it shows. Its big screen adaptation does not seek to overwhelm, astonish, or impress; it seeks to focus. It seeks make you notice every shift of the eye, twitch of the finger, and speck of spittle that accompanies a profane explosion, making it feel like an even smaller and more intimate experience than the play could have ever been. It’s a film that’s terrifying, and it’s terrifying mainly because there’s nothing here to be afraid of. After all, these are just people. Highly and eternally recommended.

1993 – Mega Man X

I deliberately avoided mentioning Mega Man X when I basked in the glory of the SNES library above, simply so I could single it out here. Mega Man is unquestionably one of my favorite game series ever, and Mega Man X deviates from the classic formula just enough to justify it as a spinoff. With an increased focus on item collection, upgrades and lingering effects of defeated bosses, Mega Man X brought additional levels of non-linearity to an already legendarily non-linear experience. While the series may have gone off the rails after another four or five games (it’s debatable), the original is a stone-cold classic, with great bosses, impressive stages, and gameplay so versatile that fans, almost 20 years later, are still discovering new ways to play it. Mega Man was never about deep plot or engrossing storylines; these were action games through and through. Mega Man X wisely didn’t try to separate itself from the originals by way of an epic storyline…it simply enhanced the action, layered on new and impressive complications, and married it to a stellar soundtrack. Mega Man X is just fantastic.

1994 – Monster

So nobody likes Monster. I know that. I also know that that’s their loss. R.E.M.’s hardest rocking album might be so much of a departure from their usual sound that it’s hard to consider it a legitimate installment in their discography…but so what? It’s fantastic. When I listen to Monster — which I do for weeks at a time whenever I stumble across it again — I hear some of the best straight-up rock and roll to come out of the decade. And it’s not entirely devoid of R.E.M.’s signature songwriting, either…you just have to listen through some thrashing guitars to find it. Songs like “Strange Currencies,” “Tongue,” and “Crush With Eyeliner” are all pulled off with the band’s usual sideways insight into the human condition, with all of the disappointment and humane absurdity that implies. The band just happened to couch that insight in some brilliantly distracting, raw, unpolished instrumentation, and that brings with it a charm of its own…a little taste of R.E.M. as the up-and-coming garage band they never were. Some fans are all too eager to dismiss this brief experiment. For me it’s top shelf material, beaten only by Automatic For the People and Lifes Rich Pageant. If you’ve written it off before, it may be worth a reappraisal.

1995 – “Knowing Me Knowing Yule With Alan Partridge”

I love Alan Partridge. He ranks easily among my five favorite comic creations throughout all of human history, and that’s due in large part to the way that Steve Coogan slips — seemingly effortlessly — into Alan’s skin and becomes him. Though he started behind a sports desk and then moved into the chat-show format, there was always something more to him. He was never a “type,” and the humor was not situational; Alan was a human being, free to be himself wherever — and with whomever — he was. He was a person, a person with insecurities, interests, and a uniquely slanted perspective. “Knowing Me Knowing Yule” is a one-off special that bridges the gap between Knowing Me Knowing You With Alan Partridge and I’m Alan Partridge…two very different, but perfectly complementary, insights into this fascinating man. It’s presented as a needlessly expensive and woefully inessential yuletide installment of Alan’s chat show, and it’s what seals the casket on his broadcasting career forever. Considering that the last proper episode of Alan’s chat show saw him shooting a guest through the heart live on air, that gives you an idea of just how poorly this festive outing manages to go. It’s a great and always welcome entry into the Christmas special canon, and worth a watch at least once per year. Alan getting threatened by a transvestite, failing to properly lip-synch “The 12 Days of Christmas” and struggling desperately to halt an in-process bit of product placement never gets old. Watch it during a family gathering. Believe me, it will make you feel better about everyone you’re related to.

1996 – “22 Short Films About Springfield”

Coming at a time when The Simpsons could genuinely do no wrong, “22 Short Films About Springfield” reads like a time-capsule today. It’s a relic — and a loving, fascinating, and clever one — of a time when Springfield was more than just a sea of caricatures and types; it was a place, fully functional in and of itself. One operating under its own logic and impossible to mistake for the real world, but real in its own way all the same. It’s a half hour without plot, without intention, and without a moral…just a simple, and undoubtedly well-earned, chance to take a deep breath and survey the incredible playground the show had built up for itself by that point. The characters were so well established and the dynamics between them so fruitful that all you needed to do was let Apu take some time off, bring Reverend Lovejoy and his dog to Flanders’ front lawn, or give a stranger the chance to turn the tables on Nelson, and comedy would flow. Effortless, wonderful, eternal comedy. “22 Short Films About Springfield” floats by like a whisper, as it should. While any other show on television could work harder and harder every week to make even a fraction of the impact on the cultural landscape that The Simpsons made, The Simpsons itself didn’t seem to need to work at all. It could just step back and see what the characters were doing…and, here, that’s what it did. The Skinner / Chalmers segment will go down in history as an all-time best sequence no matter how long the show runs, but even if that clear highlight were to be somehow excised from the episode, “22 Short Films About Springfield” would still be a perfect gem. With so many forgettable seasons behind us now, the episode is almost like footage of a great civilization long gone: those of us that were there will always have this souvenir, and those who missed it will be eternally grateful for this brief — and brilliant — window into the past.

1997 – Time Out of Mind

I’ve talked a bit about Dylan’s lost years here, but I didn’t say much about what brought him back to life. Time Out of Mind is what brought him back to life. For me, it was released at the perfect time; just as I started to explore Dylan myself, this came out. Suddenly the warnings to avoid “the recent stuff” went quiet…and I do mean suddenly. Time Out of Mind is a bullet of an album…a shot through the brain that lingers and haunts and does not let go, and critics and fans alike flocked to it immediately. Time Out of Mind doesn’t feel like a comeback album…it feels like he never left. Though his youthful, nasal prophesying is replaced here by a gravelly howl, it’s Dylan to the core, providing one of his best love songs (“Make You Feel My Love”), some chillingly vague danger (“Cold Irons Bound”), and a classic meandering tale of introspection, playing Neil Young at high volumes, and ordering hard-boiled eggs at a restaurant (“Highlands”)…it’s a gloriously meandering shaggy-dog story that caps off an aimless-by-design rediscovery of who Dylan is. It would be quicker to list the things I don’t like about this album, because there really aren’t any. Songs like “Tryin’ to Get to Heaven” and the bluntly desolate “Not Dark Yet” triggered suspicions that this was Dylan’s final statement…that the man had pulled it together one last time, to end his career on a high note. He’s released four more albums of new material since then. Dylan’s going out on a high note alright…he’s just making sure to sustain it this time. On his next album, Dylan would sing “You can always come back, but you can’t come back all the way.” That would have made more sense before Time Out of Mind, which disproves it conclusively.

1998 – Rushmore

There may not be much more I can say about Rushmore than what I’ve already said here, but that by no means dampens my excitement for talking about it yet again. Rushmore is, by many accounts, Wes Anderson’s best film. Anyone who says that to you, however, is lying. What it is, however, is Wes Anderson’s mission statement, and it’s a solid, fantastic, indelible one. Coming off of Bottle Rocket, Rushmore represents an almost unprecedented stylistic and qualitative step forward. It’s not a film in which Anderson finds his voice…it’s a film in which we find Anderson’s voice. The soundtrack, the costumes, the visual design, the character dynamics, the relentless attention to detail…everything here established what it meant to be “classic Anderson,” and it both defined a career and forever cemented a fanbase. It also introduced the world to Jason Schwartzman, and reintroduced the world to a penitent Bill Murray…a gift to humanity that Anderson should always be praised for. It’s one of those movies packed so densely that no two viewings have to feel the same, and there’s literally always something new to notice, tucked away in the corner of a quick shot, or hiding in plain sight while the camera dwells and your eyes wander. Rushmore is a great film, and while I enjoy it most for what it allowed Anderson to do down the line, I can never watch this one without coming away impressed all over again. And crying when Max introduces Mr. Blume to his father. Because that part’s fucking gold.

1999 – “Space Pilot 3000”

When Futurama debuted, it seemed like it was just going to be the less-deserving little brother of The Simpsons. But arriving, as it did, just at the time the elder show was losing steam, it established itself immediately as a more than worthy successor. While The Simpsons took a few seasons to establish a flow and sustainable gag-rate for itself, Futurama burgled some writers and hijacked that momentum, allowing it to fire on all cylinders right from the get-go. The result is an almost impossibly strong first season, kicked off by one of the most confident and well-handled pilots I’ve ever seen. Space Pilot 3000 has barely aged at all. While the voice actors may have still been getting a handle on things, the writing is sharp and solid, and the groundwork for countless fantastic episodes of smart science-fiction, piercing comedy and genuine emotion is laid here. There’s a long love letter to Futurama that I’d like to write, but as the years go by it keeps getting longer…eventually I’d just end up with too much to say. After all, what can I say to a show that gave me “Jurassic Bark,” “Time Keeps On Slipping,” “The Luck of the Fryrish,” “Godfellas,” “Lethal Inspection,” and so many others I love beyond words? Futurama is by no means a perfect show, but for some silly cartoon knockoff of another silly cartoon, it sure managed to exceed expectations quickly. It brought an end to the 90s, but ushered in a whole new expanse of grand adventures and brainy plotwork. Philip J Fry inadvertently froze himself, and woke up in a far stronger television landscape. Welcome to the world of tomorrow.

You burned so bright…

Neither Bob Dylan nor John Lennon survived 1980. And yet, they’re both still with us. Transformed…echoes of the past. One solid, one ethereal…but both of them spokesmen for a time long gone. The major difference, of course, is that only Dylan’s career was buried. It was Lennon’s body.

Tragedy is relative. In somebody’s mind, John Lennon deserved to die. His death, for reasons neither you nor I nor anybody will ever understand, was necessary. We may not have the right as individuals to decide who should live and who should die, but we all have the ability. One finger, one firearm, one bullet. It’s all anybody needs. It happens all the time. It’s usually somebody we don’t know. It’s sometimes a man who changed the world.

That early December gunshot can still be heard, if you listen hard enough. If you concentrate. If you take a moment to think about how the entire world shifted from one state of being to another, from one bright future to an uncertain, poorer, infinitely more frightening one. It’s easy to hear it, when you think like that. It’s easy to hear it still pounding against your eardrums…a violent swing into another time and place…an audible reduction of hope and optimism. A tragedy in New York City that left the world lost and confused. It’s not that hard to imagine now.

John Lennon was a cultural icon…one of very few people — and even fewer musicians — who shaped the planet on which he lived. He was also — and this is a bit harder to imagine — a human being. He’s dead now, though there’s no reason he has to be. He’s dead now because that’s what somebody decided he’d be.

That was almost thirty-two years ago, as of this writing. I’m thirty-one. I never shared the world that John Lennon helped shape. By the time I was born he was already gone. I inherited a world that was already missing him. I can still hear the echo.

Bob Dylan shared a world with John Lennon. And a friendship. And a history. John Lennon and The Beatles changed history, but Bob Dylan changed The Beatles. He broadened their horizons…an intellectual and experimental emissary from America. They became close. They even wrote a song together, though it was never recorded. Dylan spent most of his time with George Harrison, with whom he wrote songs that actually were recorded. For years John and Bob traded barbs in their separate recordings. They were friendly adversaries. They were troubadours pulling us toward a brighter future. They redefined music, and it was up to everybody else to follow along, and behind.

We all, to some extent, lost John Lennon, but a few people lost him in a more substantial way than they can ever articulate.

Now, thirty-two years and fifteen albums later, Dylan closes Tempest with a paean to his lost friend, the circling, haunting “Roll On John.”

I had never wondered before what Bob Dylan must have thought on the night of December 20, 1980. Why would I have? Yet also…why wouldn’t I have?

It’s all too easy to see celebrities as superhuman. The larger they loom, the further detached they are from the world we inhabit. Particularly in the case of figures so massive as John Lennon and Bob Dylan. They don’t appear to us as people, but as presences. As messengers from magical kingdoms we would not be fit to enter. They aren’t real…they are forces beyond our understanding.

And yet…

And yet.

They can be killed. They can be revealed as mortals after all. At which point…it’s too late.

Bob Dylan lost his friend. We may have lost an idol, a hero, a figurehead, but somewhere out there…somewhere, on a cold winter’s night, a confused artist lost a man he loved.

“Roll On John” swims in survivor’s guilt. Bob Dylan is an old man…something John Lennon was fated never to be.

On the last night of his life, though, if anyone would have expected one of them to be around in 2012, it would have been Lennon. Earlier that year, Lennon released Double Fantasy. It met with a fairly universal critical shrug, but went on to win the Grammy for album of the year, and has received retroactive reappraisal elevating some of its tracks to Lennon’s canon of all-time best, such as “(Just Like) Starting Over,” “Woman,” and the disarmingly poignant “Watching the Wheels.” Whether he was recording the best music of his career is, was, and must always be up for debate, but there’s no question that he had a great deal left to say, and a still-powerful voice with which to say it.

By contrast, Dylan was a universal joke. An aimless and meandering has-been who was currently in the depths of an embarrassingly public conversion to Christianity. The dangerous Jewish folk-singer who once led millions to challenge the status quo was now unironically and uncreatively singing the praises of Jesus on albums that couldn’t be forgotten soon enough. He had just released Saved, his second disposable album of love songs to Christ (of three). It featured songs such as “Solid Rock,” “Covenant Woman” and “Saving Grace,” all of which were used as ammunition against him by critics and fans alike. He was unquestionably recording the worst music of his career, and it was taken as gospel — ahem — that had nothing left to say, and a failing voice that wouldn’t stop saying it.

It was a stumble Dylan wouldn’t recover from for at least nine years (if your personal resurgence point is Oh! Mercy) and maybe as long as seventeen years (if you’d prefer to go with Time Out of Mind). In 1980, there was no coming back. Dylan was written off. He was dead.

Before the year ended, Lennon joined him. He was dead, too.

Lennon, with a rich and unknowable future before him, was gone. Is gone. Dylan, lost within himself and fumbling to recapture his lost talent, was still alive. Is still alive. I’m not sure that anyone’s pondered the justice of that. Anyone apart from Dylan, that is. Of course.

“I read the news today, oh boy,” Dylan sings in “Roll On John.” Just one of many Lennon lyrics and references that take on a bone-chilling resonance in this new context. This new context of an old man who outlived his usefulness mourning the loss of a young man who never got the chance to fulfill his.

Dylan howls and growls with a voice from beyond the grave…a tormented spirit raging to unburden himself of earthly woe, but to no avail. Bob Dylan started his career by impersonating Woody Guthrie, but seems sometimes to be auditioning now for the part of Jacob Marley.

Lennon’s death was a chance for Dylan — like everybody else — to look inward. If his musical output that followed is any indication, it’s not an opportunity he took seriously. But now, with so many decades separating him from the tragedy, he has the chance to look backward. In fact, “Roll On John” is adapted from a song of the same title Dylan was performing as far back as 1961. As an old man Dylan reflects on a decades-old tragedy, and sees in that reflection himself as a young man, singing a song that wouldn’t yet have meaning for him…wouldn’t yet have meaning until one of his contemporaries, a gentle, love-preaching genius, was shot in the back just before Christmas, and left for dead.

Dylan’s been through his share of tragedies since then, and it’s unlikely that the release of Tempest on September 11 was coincidental. His lovingly tormented remembrance of Lennon is one flavor of New York tragedy…and Dylan knows there are others. In fact, “Roll On John” follows the title track, which is about the sinking of the RMS Titanic. There’s a third flavor. The link is deliberate.

Tragedy is always a term decided by scope, and scope is always personal. The world can change on December 20 or September 11 or April 14 or any other combination of month and day that the calendar will allow. It can change for the better, or it can change for the worst. Waking up one morning does not suggest that you will wake up the next, and it only takes one person to make that decision for you.

Dylan survived, and Dylan survives. His career has been buried and exhumed so many times that keeping the critics satisfied has become exhausting. Instead, Dylan just does what Dylan does…and, sure enough, the critics came around, and are glad he survives.

But Dylan wonders.

If he could have traded places…

…he wonders. How the world would be different. How much he’d be missed, if he was the one gunned down in the street that night instead, at that phase in his career.

What would it mean to people? What could it mean to people? Is it better to die in your prime, loved and beloved, or to age fast and gracelessly, shedding relevance and ticket sales, as the world deteriorates around you?

Which is tragic? What really matters? A sinking ship, a falling tower, a silenced activist. An old man dying alone. A cynical world that can only be shocked back to reality by a major and devastating change. What is tragic? What really matters?

We’re all human, and yet we’re all different. We all hear the same words, and yet process different meanings. We all see the same man, and yet are flooded with different emotions.

Tragedy is what tragedy is. It’s a lesson Dylan waited a long time to learn, apparently. He might still be learning it. We all should be. After all, we’re in this together.

Roll on, Bob.

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