Spring into action – Random gum 2020

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Spring into action – Random gum 2020

It was a good run, making monthly soundtracks to chronicle life’s ups and downs. But inevitably other priorities clashed with best intentions, and here we are. I’ve just added a few bits to a playlist I intended to share in February/March 2019 – a whole year ago. How much has changed in that year, even though on a day-by-day, drip-by-drip level, it feels numbingly same-same.

Follow along on Spotify if inclined… I was, once upon a time, burning CD copies of MP3 files of all this stuff, and mailing them out with various candy/sweets from different spots in the world, but this too has fizzled out.

Usually when I produce these lists in a timely fashion, I nod respectfully to the dearly departed by including a song from those no longer on this earthly plane. For some time, something by The Cars lingered in the playlist as a ‘remembering Ric Ocasek’ thing, but it was like a nagging splinter that’s visible but unextractable. I removed the song; it didn’t belong. But the same can be said of so many things: remove because it didn’t belong – whatever ‘it’ was.

1. Jeff Russo – Star Trek Picard Main Title
Because it’s the sound of a mild but windy winter turning to spring, and of inevitable moments of turning away from
2. Roxy Music – Both Ends Burning …do I have the speed to carry on/I’ll burn you out of my mind…
3. Julia Jacklin – Good Guy …tell me I’m the love of your life/just for a night/even if you don’t feel it…
Missing Julia in Glasgow in December. Big regret. “I don’t care for the truth when I’m lonely/I don’t care if you lie”
4. Pavement – Range Life
I have no idea why I stumbled on this and placed it here.
5. Stone Poneys – Different Drum …I see no sense in the cryin’ and grievin’/We’ll both live a lot longer if you live without me…
How often this one pops up in life.
6. The Wild Reeds – Be the Change …conclude my story with a degrading phrase/because I never meant to be this way…
7. Fat White Family – Feet
8. Habib Koité – I Ka Barra
Always returning to Mali in some way, as one does
9. Angel Olsen – Lark …Hiding out inside my head, it’s me again, it’s no surprise I’m on my own now/Every time I turn to you, I see the past…
I missed out on Angel Olsen in Oslo in February. Ambitious, I bought tickets to all kinds of concerts in the autumn, and by winter, my ability to face crowds and noise withered
10. Sleater-Kinney – Hurry On Home …You got me used to loving you…
11. Maggie Rogers – Fallingwater …I never loved you fully in the way I could/I fought the current running just the way you would…
12. Karen O/Danger Mouse – Lux Prima
13. ALA.NI – Cherry Blossom …Blowing through the flowing of my heart…
14. Sharon Van Etten – Consolation Prize …The moral of the story is/don’t lie to me again/To find a better conversation/So I can be your consolation prize…
15. Jim Croce – I Got a Name …they can change their minds but they can’t change me…
I can’t hear Jim Croce without thinking of being a child, looking at an album my mom had that was just a close-up of Croce’s face, and my mom telling me that Croce died when he was 30. I was four so 30 sounded like a perfectly reasonable old age to die.
16. Dean Wareham, Britta Phillips – Mistress America
17. King Creosote – Surface …And now it’s my turn to hide, if not out here then inside/it’s both of us have run to ground…
Scotland, of course
18. Peter Schilling – Terra Titanic
For S and Deutschland love, and how Peter Schilling will always make me think of 1989 and college radio
19. Jane Weaver – You Are Dissolved …Even I am not amazed by you…
For Ade and the fights one can get into at Jane Weaver concerts
20. Heaven 17 – Temptation
21. New Order – Touched by the Hand of God
New Order, and more importantly, Kyle and Anne in Prague and seeing Naomi’s doppelganger. Will never forget the video for this song and how it entertained the adolescent Terra and me
22. Pink Floyd – Comfortably Numb …there is no pain/you are receding/a distant ship’s smoke on the horizon/you are only coming through in waves/your lips move, but I can’t hear what you’re saying…
Because, according to S, I am the only person on earth who listens to Pink Floyd without being high
23. Ride – Vapour Trail …thirsty for your smile/I watch you for a while/you are a vapour trail/in a deep blue sky…
Still the nightly sleep filled with reawakening of old Terra memories
24. Belle & Sebastian – Meat and Potatoes
Dear Green Place music with a chuckle
25. Billie Eilish – all the good girls go to hell
Not normally my thing but this is a catchy one
26. Angel Olsen – Too Easy …one could make me laugh forever/I’d do anything for you…
27. Alvvays – Next of Kin …if I’d known you couldn’t swim/we would never have gone in…
Sometimes a band will just remind you of one specific moment, one specific person, and you can’t escape it
28. U2 – Red Hill Mining Town …A link is lost/the chain undone/we wait all day/for night to come…
Last year I listened to The Joshua Tree on repeat; my long-ago obsession with that was probably the last time I was ever that connected to such blind passion for something. It was also probably the last time it seemed like U2 wasn’t just going through the motions.
29. Nils Frahm – La
With love for Andreas; this one is best listened to in headphones
30. Vashti Bunyan – Train Song …What will I do if there’s someone with you/Maybe someone you’ve always known/How do I know I can come and give to you/Love with no warning and find you alone…
Another musician whose existence I trip over, so connected to discovery at a specific moment in time. Incidentally this also serves as the theme song for a tv show called Patriot, which I watched and forgot all about and started to watch again. Luckily I immediately realized I’d seen it. But we’re way beyond peak TV now…
31. Morphine – In Spite of Me …You seemed so close but yet so cold/For a long time I thought that you’d be coming back to me/Those kind of thoughts can be so cruel/So cruel/And I know you did it all in spite of me…
32. Angel Olsen – All Mirrors …I’ve been watchin’ all my past repeatin’…
33. Belle & Sebastian – The Party Line …I am on this morning quite distracted/The tug of war begins in our emotion/I am leaving many people feeling/worse than before…
I know I have included this song on another playlist before, but I don’t care. I love it that much.
34. Lana Del Rey – Mariners Apartment Complex
Also not my normal thing. I’m NOT a Lana Del Rey fan but at some point I listened to this particular song enough that it just became a part of this list, and I couldn’t remove it.
35. This Is the Kit – Bashed Out …and blessed are those who see and are silent…
36. The GoGos – Our Lips Are Sealed …there’s a weapon that we must choose in our defense/silence…
For S, J, and others. Somehow many people who should know better had never heard of this, and if they knew the song, they only knew the Fun Boy Three version. The two versions are tellingly different, but the GoGos’ version came first; the song was written by The GoGos’s Jane Wiedlin and Fun Boy Three’s Terry Hall.
37. Joe Fagin – That’s Livin’ Alright, end-credit theme, Auf Wiedersehen Pet
Um, yeah… thanks to S, this past year has been a learning experience about 80s-era UK television. This gem is the end-credits theme for a show about a bunch of unemployed English construction workers who go to Germany to get a job. Funny that with Brexit and its inevitable economic consequences, Germany and the rest of Europe won’t be an option for this type of out-of-work bloke any more
38. Tori Amos – Putting the Damage On …I’m just your ghost passing through…

Lunchtable TV Talk: Deutschland83

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Four-three-two-one… earth below us…

I have been blown away by the German eight-part spy drama, Deutschland83. I love Germany, and Berlin in particular, but I cannot say I have ever understood German tastes. And when it comes to TV, it’s not like the Germans churn out anything that anyone outside of the German-speaking world wants to watch or copy. As I wrote the other day, the US and UK seem to travel on a fast-track highway of exchanging each other’s entertainment. The Nordic countries have infiltrated, exporting both their “Nordic Noir” dramas and the ideas behind them (to be adapted and redone to varying degrees of success). And even France has joined the fray, offering up stuff like Les Revenants, already remade into The Returned, and Engrenages (Spiral), and Les témoins (Witnesses). And Israel is a rich source of inspiration. But Germany? Not so much. Don’t believe me? I’m not the only one to think so.

“For decades, German TV drama was seen as reflecting the kind of cultural tastes that made David Hasselhoff a nation’s rock god: trite, unadventurous, psychologically challenging only when the lead actor of one particularly long-running detective show was outed as a former SS member.”

Until now.

The premise: a young East German guy, Martin, is forced to become a Stasi operative in West Germany as a West German military officer named Moritz. His aunt is an upper-level Stasi operative herself, and she recruits him, against his will, and uses carrots (the promise of an apartment and car) and sticks (indirectly threatens her sister, his mother) to keep him in line. The story is taut and aligned with real events from the early 1980s. I am totally disappointed that it is only eight episodes long, but I was duly impressed with not just the pacing and storytelling at work but with the way the period is handled – so many of the events and fears of the moment (everything from nuclear annihilation to AIDS), so much of the music (“99 Luftballons” of course!), the “high-tech” developments of the time that young people today would be as clueless about as Martin is when he encounters them (he goes to steal a document and instead only finds a little plastic square with a hole in it – a floppy disk!).

I can’t recommend the show enough. I wrote about it the other day, highlighting the fact that it is the first program to be shown in the US with English subtitles for its almost exclusively German-language script. Even when an American military general appears in the story and starts to talk, you’d expect everything to switch to English (he is an American after all!), everything continues in German. International programming has more to offer than ever, and while one could say that the content was always there and we were not paying attention, I doubt it. It’s a lot like US programming… as distribution has changed and major networks are not the only channels through which content is available, creativity is being unleashed everywhere.

Even in Hasselhoff’s Germany.

Lunchtable TV Talk – Cucumber: “It’s a gay TV!”

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After enduring the tiresome and boring Looking on HBO, I wondered if it were possible to find something funny, real, sad, multidimensional and human on television that was just a normal but engaging depiction of gay life. Not caricatures, not some empty, juvenile idea of what gay life is. Something that feels like a genuine slice of life in a gay/LGBTQ context. And Cucumber is it. At least partly. Nothing is ever quite the whole package.

Cucumber’s creator, Russell T. Davies, brought us groundbreaking TV content in the past, such as Queer as Folk (the original UK version of course, which featured the now well-known Charlie Hunnam of Sons of Anarchy and Aidan Gillen of The Wire and Game of Thrones. Davies delivers in Cucumber (and in the accompanying, more lighthearted, half-hour program, Banana, which focuses on younger, secondary characters) all the things viewers could have hoped for in Looking. (Incidentally, Davies praised Looking and explained his view that perhaps it just went over viewers’ heads and that those who did not get it are “dumb”. He thought it was brilliant, but I don’t see it and don’t think there was anything deep to understand. Cucumber and Banana together deeply explore the themes, both comedic and tragic, that Looking could have elucidated without being a whiny, self-serving drag. It’s kind of Davies, though, to give Looking so much credit. Looking broke some new ground in certain areas – story for another time – but was not remotely relatable. Maybe the fact that we are left to compare these very different shows to each other is the bigger issue – TV shows that depict gay life aren’t a dime a dozen. Maybe there is a whole new paradigm we should be exploring.)

I care about these characters (both those in Cucumber and in Banana). In Cucumber, they can be frustrating, infuriating, silly, charming, funny, heartbreaking, showing the full range of their lives, relationships, fears – whether it is fear of and anxiety about sex (“Sex is for sexy people and the rest of us can just give it up.”), fear of aging, fear of being alone, fear of feeling and so much more. (Not everyone agrees, of course, as there was some backlash about Cucumber when it originally aired in the UK, with viewers finding “the characters unsympathetic and unwatchable. For others, the drama was inconsistent and tonally weird”. I can see those complaints, but at the same time don’t think it’s possible to create anything to absolute perfection. Unlikable, tonally weird or not, and unclear on whether it’s “light” or “dark”, Cucumber does not always walk the tightrope delicately. Both Looking and Cucumber, as the aforementioned article from The Daily Beast notes, are “about gay discontent at a time when the prevailing social winds—marriage equality, growing acceptance—seem to blow in another direction”. In contemporary entertainment channels, Cucumber is still better than anything else of its kind, which, if nothing else, should inspire storytellers and networks to raise the bar.)

Cucumber‘s most shocking episode, and the catalyst for where Henry (the main character) ends up, begins with Lance (Henry’s long-term partner until the show begins) wandering in the grocery store, where all of the episodes begin. It ends up revealing the timeline of his life and is actually so powerful and separate from the overall narrative in many ways that it could almost stand alone without the context of the rest of the show’s seven other episodes. You would not necessarily need to know the characters or the story that led to this point to feel his angst, his joy, his uncertainty, his humanity, his pain, his fear and his untimely end.

It reminded me, strangely (not in tone or theme but as a storytelling device) of a disjointed episode of Hell on Wheels that focused on the character Elam Ferguson (Common) after he had disappeared the previous season to go look for lead character, Cullen Bohannon. It also ushered in the surprise ending of a well-loved character. We suddenly see, near the end of the next season, that Ferguson, who had been mauled by a bear at the end of the previous season, survived the attack and is being nursed back to health by an Indian tribe. The entire episode is like a self-sustaining capsule that looks and feels nothing like the rest of the series. (Mr Firewall happened to be visiting when that episode aired, and it was the only episode he had ever seen, so he did not get an accurate impression of the show at all.) The idea of taking a character out of the normal run of things, away from the rest of the ensemble, and telling a tale that is uniquely his makes these episodes highly unusual.

Cucumber succeeded in creating a tense, terrifying and real hour of television while Hell on Wheels devised a very slow-moving tale of recovery that falsely led us to believe that Elam would even have a triumphant homecoming (we were misled/cheated. Elam does return in another episode and has gone so completely mad that he is gunned down like a rabid dog – so what was the long road to recovery episode even for?).

Cucumber‘s near-standalone episode six was heartbreaking. Lance was so desperate to please and to find someone he loved that he first spent nine ambiguous and somewhat unsatisfying years with lead character, Henry, who spewed hateful, vile stuff at Lance as they split up, ultimately told Lance that he had no spine and that Lance would wait for him to return. And when that relationship really ended, Lance pursued a conflicted, identity-crisis-ravaged, violent caveman who could not admit his own sexuality or accept even his own sexual curiosity. The Twittersphere came alive with a lot of “It’s 2015 – why do gay characters have to succumb to violence?” exchanges, but such statements ignore the realities that sexual minorities (or perhaps all kinds of minorities) face. Society has seemingly moved forward – legally and on a superficial level – but there will always be haters (whose hatred is really for themselves above all, even if it is unleashed on others). It’s a universal this sense of wanting something so much that ignoring danger makes sense. Hope springs eternal. Is the one night with a handsome man really worth it? Lance gets a warning – “go home, go to bed and sleep. You could walk away, right now… never look back. But he’s so damn handsome.” Devastating when you know what’s coming.

I’d say that though the show is focused on 46-year-old Henry, facing a midlife crisis and struggling with a stagnant relationship, Lance is its heart. Henry moves out of their common home into a warehouse apartment with two younger guys whose sexuality is a lot more open and fluid, which introduces the very different generational dynamics at play in the gay community. But Lance is what we care about and hope that maybe, just maybe, Henry will come to his senses and go back to Lance. When we lose Lance, we lose the sappy American idea of the “happy ending” reconciliation and see Henry grieve on all the different paths grief takes.

As stated, with a dearth of content on TV that focuses on the daily minutiae of LGBTQ life, comparisons between mostly dissimilar shows with only a similar theme in common are inevitable, e.g. Cucumber and Looking. The look that both take at discontent and dissatisfaction is telling in, as quoted above, a time when gay marriage is closer to becoming legally sanctioned in a majority of western countries and gay/LGBTQ relationships are becoming more openly accepted. Does this acceptance take away from or redefine the gay identity – usurp what many gay individuals need to feed their perceptions of themselves (e.g., young Dean, who features in both Cucumber and Banana, pretends to be alienated from his unaccepting, homophobic family, but we learn that he actually has a very accepting and loving family. He seems resentful of the fact that he cannot shock them with his being gay or “sexually subversive”). Does it change the foundation of what LGBTQ people thought their lives would be?

“Many of the arguments against marriage equality in the United States, an issue that may soon be settled nationally, have centered on the idea that admitting same-sex couples to the institution would irreparably alter it. But making marriage an option for those couples inevitably changes LGBT life too, if only by widening the scope of experiences available to lesbian, gay and bisexual people.” … “Advances towards equality still leave us, no matter who we are, with our own very human, very personal problems.”

LGBTQ on TV: Let’s not get it on

Maybe this is partly the point. Gay sex, gay identity, gay openness is not shocking enough to the average person any longer. I don’t want to diminish the reality of homophobia (the aforementioned “Lance” episode of Cucumber illustrates tragically that homophobia in all its forms is alive and well). While having sex probably does not define any individual or group, many people have long tried to insist that the LGBTQ experience is only about sex. When we reach a point at which it no longer shocks a wide swath of the population, and characters like Cucumber’s Henry are somewhat sex-averse (he has never tried penetrative sex, which is an unusual plot point, in that it flies in the face of what most non-gay audiences would imagine about gay men, and gets to a question recently addressed in an article on Salon), it is no longer just a story about people having sex.

The Salon article asserts that TV’s gay characters are a fairly sexless bunch, and that gay sexual lives on TV are too tame. It’s tempting to overreact to this article – to claim that shows like Banana and Cucumber, and for example, HBO’s Six Feet Under, have not shied away from gay sexual encounters at all (any more than any show in America at least – real, non-commoditized sexuality and nudity are still something of a taboo on American TV).

The article argues that the sexlessness is attributable to America’s squeamishness about seeing gay sex (or overt suggestions of it) on mainstream TV. Is this true? Does mainstream America at “family time/prime time” (i.e. before 22:00 in the evening) want to see overt sexuality from anyone? Plenty of innuendo but nothing explicit, so it is hard to say. Similarly the argument rests on the idea that Cam and Mitchell, Modern Family’s married gay couple, are so innocuous and sexless and appear to barely like each other. They are popular and easy to cheer for as gay characters because they pose no threat. While this might be true (because other characters are sexualized to some degree in the same show), it is still a primetime show, so nothing is overly sexual in its time slot. If you move a little later in the evening, you get the openly bisexual Nolan Ross on Revenge or Cyrus Beene on Scandal. And even ABC Family’s The Fosters, while presumably less “alarming” to middle America than gay men, focuses on a mixed-race, married female couple who are not only affectionate with each other but openly discuss their struggles to make time for sex with the demands of their careers and large, and always growing, family.

It is true that a lot of the best, most realistic, LGBTQ characters and couples don’t appear on mainstream, network TV – certainly not the most sexually active and adventurous characters. But cable channels (particularly paid channels, like HBO and Showtime) have always led the way with groundbreaking content, and in this sense, this is not an exception. Showtime’s Shameless gave us a truly fresh perspective on the subject with its improbable young couple, Ian and Mickey. HBO’s True Blood gave us a glimpse at very different kinds of sexuality in general, not just the out and proud sexuality of Lafayette. But various characters are changing the face of TV in subtle ways: Captain Ray Holt in Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a black police captain who faced both racism and homophobia in his work and who enjoys a loving, long-term interracial relationship with his partner; Omar Little the Robin Hood-like criminal in The Wire; David and Keith in Six Feet Under – another interracial relationship that came to be only after the uptight David could accept his own sexuality; Kevin and Scotty in Brothers & Sisters (and eventually Kevin’s Uncle Saul, who comes out quite late in life); Callie Torres and Arizona Robbins in Grey’s Anatomy; John Cooper in Southland; numerous characters who live unhappy, closeted lives because of the times they live in (Thomas Barrow in Downton Abbey, Sal Romero in Mad Men along with many other subtle and ambiguous characters who have come along throughout the seven season run of Mad Men, Nurse Mount in Call the Midwife). I did not always buy everything these characters did, and sometimes the stories involved them could feel a bit “placed” and token in nature. But it is encouraging that, slowly, this array of LGBTQ characters has become the new norm.

We have come a long way from the Jodie Dallas character in Soap, who started as a gay character who offered to have a sex-reassignment operation to be with his ultra-masculine football player boyfriend. Advertisers threatened to pull their support for the show, and for a while the show stood its ground. But eventually Jodie had relationships/flings with women and fathered a child. While he as a character maintained all along that he was gay, his character was a lightning rod in that he did not satisfy gay rights groups (justifiably concerned that the character would appear stereotypical or at the very least not representative of the gay community) and he did not make conservative groups happy simply because the character existed. But the character was a kind of pioneer – and we can at least see that the variety and depth of representation has changed a lot since the late 1970s when Soap was on the air.

With everything else that has changed in how the LGBTQ population is seen and accepted and has changed in how entertainment is produced and consumed, we should be able to think more creatively about how to produce and present things outside of the standard template.