Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Who Is the Man Who Puts Waves on the Sand?

Last night I posted about ten songs released in 2013 that I liked. However, I think it’s a more accurate measure of my tastes — and my year — to list off ten tracks that I discovered in 2013 that did not come out this year.

Enjoy, I hope.

“I Want Someone to Love,” by Vic Trick

You can’t ignore how big a debt it owes to “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This),” but I enjoy how it veers off after the familiar-sounding intro. It’s almost wrong. Also, for me it’s a plus that I can’t understand half of what he says. He probably couldn’t either. “I like cigarette tonight [indecipherable] towards the stars.” That’s songwriting people..

“It Came in the Night,” by A Raincoat

A fantastic, mid-70s rock track that has been mostly lost in the pop culture shuffle, this song is one I suggest should be the official theme of Halloween.

“Storm Keeper,” by Culture Club

I’d either never heard it or never noticed it until this year. More pop songs should have flutes, I say.

“Army Dreamers,” by Kate Bush

An admission: Before this year, I actually never bothered with Kate Bush. Her videos always looked nuts, and she just seemed like a lot to deal with, even if she was adored by a good number of friends whose taste in music I respected. This year, I decided to figure out what her deal is. I still don’t know, aside from her being nuts — have you seen her videos? — but now I’ve gone through her entire catalogue, and I can see what everyone else always did. “Army Dreamers” is my favorite track, even though it’s perhaps the least Kate Bushy of her hits. I’m down with any songwriter who writes in triple time and narrates from the perspective of a character who is clearly different from her real-life persona.

“(Hey There) Big Bad Wolf,” by The Sham-ettes

I have written before about how happy I am that this song exists. There should be more songs written in response to pop standards. 

“Happy Station,” by Fun Fun

Because they sing the way Heidi Klum talks. And they dance like alcohol poisoning. That is all.

“Hollywood Cemetery Songs,” by Father John Misty

I know, I know; it’s only a year old. But I missed this song when it hit back in 2012. And I’m recommending it now because it makes me remember when I was in the seventh grade and first discovered this thing called alt rock.

“Right on Target,” by Paul Parker

Bonus because (a) Paul Parker looks like your friend’s hot dad and (b) “right on target” is most likely a reference to an anus.

“Le mannequin,” by Annie Philippe

Every few years, I apparently go through a ye-ye period. This year’s winner happens to be a narrative by a department store mannequin. Despite the rather limited narrator, the song suggests rather emphatic dancing gestures. Out in a field. In the sunshine.

“Oscillate Wildly,” by The Smiths

I learned this year that this was once the music that KCET played on-air when it advertised the night’s line up of programming. I work for KCET now. This made me happy, even if we lack anything on-air that’s half as cool as this. Unrelated but nonetheless relevant: I still say the girl on the album cover is a time-traveling Kristen Schaal.

Honorable mentions: Seriously, it’s just “Crazy Night” by Dorine Hollier. If you haven’t yet watched, please do; you’ll never see an Italian woman bop around onstage in quite so entertaining a fashion. And you can’t lose, 2013 or 2014 or otherwise, with lyrics like “Seems like the moon / Has grown a nose / Dance like a loon / A million shows.”

Monday, December 30, 2013

Alone on a Stage / In the Reflective Age

I’m not doing this to assert any authority in the music sphere. I’m just telling you what worked for me this last year, in hopes that my ability to keep your interest means with my writing you’re also down with my ideas on non-sucky music. Here, with no hifalutin airs whatsoever, are my favorite songs of 2013.

“My Number,” by Foals

I actually discovered this one only recently, but it’s still my most-played track of the year. It makes me want to dance. Like a drunk Muppet.

“You’re Not the One,” by Sky Ferreira

People who know me well might be surprised to see an out-and-out pop song rank so highly on this list. I am too, honestly. I’ve had a difficult relationship with Top 40-style music since the 90s, but this song fucking works. My love may stem from the fact that Ferreria is channeling Cyndi Lauper and non-shitty-era Madonna, but to say that’s almost unfair to Ferreria, because she’s ultimately doing her own thing. If this is what pop music was all the time, I would listen to pop music.

“Tell Me What Ya Here For,” by Fitz & the Tantrums

As someone especially sharp put it, “I am here for that amazing looped flute sample.” I enjoyed every track on this bands sophomore album, but this track narrowly beats out “The Walker” and “Out of My League.”

“Reflektor,” by Arcade Fire

Maybe not that surprising, since it was the new album’s lead track, but I never got tired of listening to it. I’m a sucker for a danceable track that skews dark and weird, and all the associated Phantom Zone imagery just ties it all together nicely.

“Hurricane” by MS MR

No, I’m still not sure how to pronounce the band’s name. Yes, the video reads like a CW musical take on the X-Men, but I’m all for dark, creepy pop.

“Dissolve Me” by Alt-J

I mean, I was as disappointed as anybody when I found out this group was just four white guys. Just based on the lead singer’s voice, I was hoping they’d be, like, space aliens or something. Still, the fact that they made an album that sounds like space aliens counts for something. This track grabbed me the most.

“Jenny” by Studio Killers

Unusually direct subject matter + accordion + imaginary band a la Gorillaz = an equation I can’t compute, but just trust me when I tell you that you’ll be humming this if you just give it a chance.

“Evil Friends,” by Portugal. The Man

“I can’t even be your friend.” After the creepy intro, it picks up around the 1:12 mark, and then truly blossoms at the 2:13 mark.

“Pyramids,” by Man Man

It’s Modest Mouse. It’s Soul Coughing. It’s a dance party for me and maybe no one else, but it’s maybe the best track from a rock album I enjoyed thoroughly, and it’s all too rare that I enjoy an album through and through.

“Entertainment,” by Phoenix

That opening riff gets me every time — and makes me forget that I ever got to a point where “Lisztomania” made me want to make Phoenix go away.

Honorable mentions: “Bullet Train,” by Gardens & Villa; “Take Me Over,” by Cut Copy; “Cut Copy Me,” by Petula Clark (who, yes, is still alive and still recording); “A Tooth for an Eye,” by Knife; “Needle,” by Born Ruffians; and “Together/Never,” by Oberfohher

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Icicle Houses

I don’t know why a song called “Bamboo Houses” would make me think of Christmas, but somehow this 1982 track by David Sylvian and Ryuichi Sakamoto puts there. But it’s not the well-lit, tinsel-wrapped take on Christmas. No, it’s the first hour of Christmas Day, just after midnight, when it’s dark and cold but still so much more interesting than this time of day most other nights of the year. There’s electricity, even if you’re an adult.

All this from houses made of bamboo.

Merry Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Christmas Cat That Eats People

I like to think about how I’d explain the difference between Santa Claus and Jesus to an objective third party — say, a space alien or maybe someone for whom geographic location or economic circumstance had rendered December no more special than any other dreary, wind-blown month. My best effort: “They both come on Christmas, only one is an old magic man who brings children presents that have clearly been purchased in stores, and the other is a baby who actually received gifts, even if he wasn’t actually born on December 25. And the old man isn’t real, because adults don’t believe in magic, but they do believe in Jesus, because he was executed but then then he got better. Oh, also people who really like one traditionally aren’t so crazy about the other, though Jesus would clearly win in a fight.” This isn’t a knock against Santa Claus or Baby Jesus; I actually find it comforting how any belief system — religious or otherwise — begins to seem crazy when you write it out on paper.

(via flickr user gothomr // cc license)
And it’s for that reason that I can make fun of the Yule Cat without necessarily picking on the Icelandic people. From Wikipedia:
The Yule Cat (Icelandic: Jólakötturinn or Jólaköttur) is a monster from Icelandic folklore, a huge and vicious cat said to lurk about the snowy countryside during Christmastime and eat people who have not received any new clothes to wear before Christmas Eve.
Because little orphans shivering in the bitter cold of Reykjavik in December don’t have enough to worry about. It’s not all as “punish the poors” as it sounds, though it still basically is. From this site:
It may sound strange that the deprived ones will also become the sacrifices, but this tradition is based on the fact that every effort was made to finish all work with the autumn wool before yule. The reward for those who took part in the work was a new piece of clothing. Those who were lazy received nothing. Thus the Yule Cat was used as an incentive to get people to work harder.
So see? It’s not a grim story about injury being added atop the insult already borne by the Icelandic underprivileged. It’s a capitalistic fable about the virtues of working hard for your employer. Merry Christmas, you lazy employees!

painting by stephan wagemann, via his blog
The Wikipedia page for Yule Cat also recommends the related page on troll cats, which are explained as follows: “Either in the shape of a cat or a ball, troll cats sucked milk from cows and spat it out in the witches' milk pails, and went into homes to lick up cream. Related creatures are milk hares and milk rabbits.”

It’s the season to believe in something.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

The Happiest Arabian Family in Video Game-dom

Meet Imajin and his family.

You’re going to see a lot of them in this post.

I recently did something I’d only done once before in my life: sent away for a Japanese video game. Last time was years ago, and I did it to play a sequel to a beloved game that never made it outside Japan. This time, however, I bought a video game cartridge that I’ll probably never play.

It’s Doki Doki Panic, the game that became Super Mario Bros. 2, meaning that it’s for the Japanese version of the NES and that I therefore have no system to plug it into. I’m actually not sure why I even bought it, other than to possess a thing that always seemed out-of-reach. I can say this much, though: Flipping through the instruction manual makes for a very “red universe-blue universe” moment, because it means seeing familiar elements in a context that feels inherently wrong. It’s like someone mucked with the timeline and re-wrote history.

Here, you can play along too.

The official box art, for example, features the heroes, a jolly Arabian family, fighting the big bad and his monsters. It should look familiar even if you’d never heard of Doki Doki Panic, first because the big bad, Mamu, became Wart for the game’s transformation into Super Mario Bros. 2 and second because the box art for the Super Mario version of the game re-creates this scene, almost pose for pose.(Note, though, the latter is the artwork for Super Mario USA, the version of the American take on the game that Nintendo eventually released in Japan. The American box art for Super Mario Bros. 2 looks different, of course.)

Unsure what’s going on here, exactly, but I’ll say this much: My childhood could have benefitted from more anthropomorphic video game cartridges giving me instructions.

Something else I could have benefitted from in my childhood? Video games that devoted four pages of the instruction manual to storylines. It’s pretty clear that Mamu is trying to get a taste of those delicious winged moppets that Arabian culture is so famous for. I know what’s going on, more or less, and I know that the storybook motif explains why the final world is missing a level — I’ll bet it’s the ripped page in the bottom corner of page 8 — but if anyone can provide a word-for-word translation, I’d be eternally grateful.

I like how they show you the Bad Dream Machine right there in the manual, on the bottom of page 6, so as to prevent the “What the hell is that supposed be?” reaction I had when I got to the last room of the game back in the day.

I’ve mentioned before here that the pet monkey is not playable in the game, and I will point out a second time how that seems like a terrible oversight on Nintendo’s part. That said, they have dressed the monkey well.

Hit the jump for more.

Here, the “Mario” of the game, Imajin, admonishes you for something. I know not what.

Walkin’ toward each other, like you do. Again, I know not why.

Here, you learn about the various characters’ special abilities. Only you don’t need to, because they’re the same abilities as the Mario 2 cast. It’s interesting how these characters are now all but forgotten, yet they’re the reason certain Mario elements exist today. For example, Lina and Mama run more slowly than Imajin and Papa, but they compensate with superior jumping abilities. Those same jumping abilities are still around today, so it’s actually Lina and Mama who are responsible for Peach hovering in middair and Luigi jumping especially high in Super Mario 3D World.

It’s also worth pointing out that the Super Mario Bros. 2 instruction manual re-created these images too, but I suppose it’s just the most sensible way to convey this info graphically.

I can’t seem to find a good, large version of the vegetable-plucking line-up, but it was there in the manual too, and it even got re-created in the in-game intro to Super Mario Advance.

 (Yes, it does in fact look like twerking, now that you see it in GIF form.)

Such a happy family, even despite the abduction of their children! I actually had a conversation on Twitter about Doki Doki Panic being rare in that it lets you play as all the members of a family: the mom, the dad and the kids. It was suggested that I write up something on such video games, but I actually got stuck after thinking of only one other: Legacy of the Wizard. I wonder if there are any more.

Again, more of Imajin where we’re used to seeing Mario. Everything else is basically unchanged, save for those weird masks on the bottom of page 20, which became mushroom blocks in Super Mario Bros. 2. (And if you’re curious about the abundance of masks in Mario 2, see this post.)

An overview of items. Again, it’s more or less the same, with a few obvious substitutions like the inexplicable racist blackface head getting switched out for a Koopa Troopa shell. Curious how Doki Doki Panic still has a star to grant you invincibility, Super Mario-style, when it wasn’t intended as a Mario game. 

Yep, the extra life-granting slot machine got its start in Doki Doki Panic too, so I guess you could say that’s where the Super Mario 3D World version comes from. (The music is a dead give-away.)

A little weirdness here: Apparently Doki Doki Panic treats the gray Shy Guys as a separate enemy, while the American version doesn’t. I’m wracking my brain to remember if the gray ones acted any differently. Anyone? (Also, a little trivia: They only put one red Snifit in either version of game, even though he appears on both box arts.)

Only one “red world” moment, and it’s the less demonic-looking Phanto mask. (I prefer mine as frightening as possible.) But there are two other oddities here that might be explained by the images coming from a beta version of the game: the background behind that Beezo and whatever platform the Bob-Omb is walking on, which doesn’t appear in Super Mario Bros. 2

Only one bit here: While they kept the original artwork for every other enemy, Nintendo re-drew Pokey the Amblin’ Cactus for the Super Mario Bros. 2 manual to look cuter but less like how he looks in-game. (See?) I just imagine some art director declaring, “It’s all good but this shitty-looking cactus has got to go.”

Both the American and Japanese versions of the game make the weird decision to show art of big bad but not a screenshot of how he actually looks in the game, even though he looks basically exactly like the art depicts. It would have been more surprising if you got to the last stage and the big bad had, like, blonde pigtails and a pink sundress. And yeah — no Clawgrip (or even Clawglip) here, as he’s unique to Mario 2.

Also, might any of you Japanese-savvy readers be able to translate page 37? I know it has something to do with this phone card featuring Imajin and Lina next to Mario and Peach.

Another odd tie between this game and the Mario games before Nintendo turned it into a Mario game. “Greetings, Arabian kids from an unrelated game. We are going to blink you out of existence shortly!”

More life lessons from an anthropomorphic video game cartridge. The life lesson you’re getting here is not to be a dick, I guess. The “don’t touch the magnetic strip” part seems especially invasive.

And that’s it. 

Is it weird to feel nostalgic for something you didn’t actually experience? That’s the feeling I got flipping through this manual. Short of going back in time and playing it as a kid, I think I’ve gotten about as much as I can from this footnote in video game history. I don’t know if anyone else has gotten as much from it as I have. I think it was learning about the existence of Doki Doki Panic and how it had been retroactively absorbed into the Mario series that sparked an interest in “continuity immigrants,” as the aptly named Jor-Ellis Island refers to them. I’m also pretty sure that Doki Doki Panic is responsible for my love of overlooked, underappreciated and otherwise forgotten video games from this time period.

Maybe more than anything else, however, what really pings my “back in the day”-dar is the artwork. I don’t know who did the illustrations for Doki Doki Panic, but they nailed that “classic Nintendo” look. Should Nintendo ever release a collection of all this hand-drawn instruction booklet artwork one day, I know of at least one nerd who’d be happy to own it.

This? This is my childhood right here, even if this was a game I never played:

And another:

doki doki panic official art super mario bros. 2

And another:

And finally, befitting his sad fate of getting wiped out of existence by an Italian plumber, we’ll close on Imajin getting electrocuted. 

Video games, previously:

Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Original Fox Confessor

Never having bought a physical copy, I’d only seen the cover art for Neko Case’s 2006 album Fox Confessor Brings the Flood all squinched and shrunken in my iPhone screen. When I finally saw a high-res version a few days ago, I was pleased to learn that no, that isn’t a misshapen but monolithic bouffant the girl is sporting: It’s just the shadowy landscape behind her. Roll your chair back and make your eyes go blurry if you can’t see how I could have mistaken that shape for a Selma Bouvier-style ’do.

This seemed relevant at the moment — a phrase I find myself saying more and more often these days — and so I posted it on Facebook. My friend Bri asked me what the hell that album title was referring to. I had no idea, I realized. I looked. Here’s what I found out.

In 2006, Case told the Chicago Tribune that the album was her way of examining fairy tales:
I’ve always been fascinated by fairy tales, but we really don’t have fairy tales anymore. Movies have taken their place, and modern fiction seems to be in this rut of the coming-of-age story, which is getting really boring. I’m trying to find things on the outer limits of experience. I really love the Eastern European fairy tales because they're not only dark but they're also funny and not overly moral.
In the same article, Tribune music critic Greg Kot makes two more points about the “country noir” album’s allegorical nature:
Case’s heavy use of symbolism is also a means of avoiding more confessional and autobiographical songs, of which she has also tired. There’s plenty of Case’s story in these songs, it’s just more artfully veiled.
In the world staked out by Fox Confessor, life is divided into predators and prey, and Case’s songs are a menagerie of symbolic characters drawn from the eat-or-be-eaten wild: the naive sparrow, the devouring lion, the vampire who has a “tender place in my heart for strangers.”
All that was enough to make me think that Neko probably presented the album — the title, the lyrics and even the art — with at least a general symbolic game plan in mind, but like Kot says, the meaning is not necessarily obvious, and I had no idea what story she may be trying to tell with the album title, an apparent reference to an old world fairy tale about a fox and a wolf. Here’s the full text of one version, and for the TL/DR crowd, here’s my Cliffs Notes version: A thirsty fox wanders into a well to get a drink, but when he steps onto the water bucket, he sinks to the bottom. Down there, he’s doubly screwed because there’s no drinkable water, and he can’t get back up, but then a wolf comes along, and the fox tells the wolf that the bottom of the well is, in fact, paradise, but he can only enter if he confesses all his sins to the fox. The wolf does, and then the fox tells him to step into the other bucket. As the wolf moves down into the well, the fox’s bucket is lifted out. The fox runs away, and eventually when some friars go to get water, they find and kill the wolf. The end.

Like Case said, the story doesn’t beat you over the head with its moral, but the full text includes an intro that says it was a satire of religious hypocrisy, with the fox confessor — remember, a confessor in this context is probably the person hearing the confession, even though that word can also mean the person listing off their sins — offering the wolf promises of salvation but ultimately leaving him worse of than he was in the first place. (Oddly and perhaps notably, the text includes an untranslatable phrase, the widow’s curse, which case seems to be subverting in another Fox Confessor track, “A Widow’s Toast,” but again I’m unsure to what end. For what it’s worth, that song also has explicitly religious, explicitly Catholic themes.) This version of the “fox and wolf” story also lacks a flood — in fact, there’s the opposite of a great deal of water waiting at the bottom of the well — but it’s apparently just one variation on a theme.

I also found Scott Reid’s review of Fox Confessor for Coke Machine Glow, in which he describes a Ukrainian version of the fable that ends with the wolf entering the ocean because he foolishly believes the fox’s claims that he can control the tides. (It does not end well for the wolf.) From this review:
[T]o grossly oversimplify some really harsh but “darkly funny” (according to Neko) animal mythology, Fox Confessor Brings the Flood = the person-wild animal-higher power that you put your faith in fools you, so not only are your sins not absolved, there’s this big (pre-existent, not actually of confessor’s control) shit-flood that’s gonna wreck you and leave you either abandoned and begging for sweet reprieve or corpsed up on your predator’s doorstep like the old guy who married Anna Nicole Smith.
The review makes some interesting connections, but I in particular enjoy Reid’s analysis of the album’s title track, which actually features a fox confessor as a character.

It’s also example of how beautiful and dark and intriguingly abstract Neko Case can be, and why I’m still fiddling with this album seven years later. Writes Reid:
Here, [the narrator] drives by “beautiful” flooded fields in the first verse and floods her own sleeves (finally realizing she has nothing to “hold [her] faith in,” she breaks down) in the last. Both scenes bookend a confrontation with the fox confessor, who she follows, guilt-ridden, in “retreat.” But in retreat from what? The flooded fields? Well, no — in those she finds beauty, as any good gothic protagonist would. It’s the flooded sleeves, the emotional manifestation of her “orphan blues,” that leaves her so vulnerable and defeated. So, when the fox confessor tells her that it’s not her fault and understands her frustration (“It’s not for you to know / but for you to weep and wonder / when the death of your civilization precedes you”), of course she’s going to follow him, accepting that wherever it leads her will be a step up from what she’s going through. She ultimately gives in because she’s burdened with a monumental sense of loss: of faith, self-respect, options, love, power, hope, sanity, all that good shit. She’s inundated by an overwhelming lack of control and direction, left a pessimistic emotional wreck that’d rather accept a foolishly romanticized concept of death than deal with her own demons.
And finally, Reid even ties these themes in to Julie Morstad’s album cover illustration, which again intrigues me but doesn’t seem to fit in with any of the symbolism laid down in the lyrics or the folklore, aside from there being a female protagonist, foxes and that prevalent dark, mysterious beauty.

And here is some art from inside the CD jacket, where it’s easier to see that the girl has cloven feet:

 Reid makes as good an analysis as any:
The cover depicts a surreal combination of fable and subject: a black-haired girl with the cloven feet cradles severed heads. It gives the impression that she has some sort of ownership of death (the heads are hers, after all), an impossibility that just sets a defeating cycle in motion: that false ownership both temporarily distracts (she has to run out of heads sometime, then the foxes get her) and lures the fox, trapping the girl in frustration and guilt.
This is what I found, anyway. Of course, I’d be happy to hear how anyone else can put the pieces together. Meanwhile, listen to “Hold on, Hold on” again, and see what it shakes loose.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

Just Dripping With Creativity

Today I learned the subtext of the word seminal. It’s semen. Yep, just like it sounds.

Years spent around the endless praise of arts journalists may have warped my thinking, but I feel like when people use the word today, they’re most often using it in the context of creativity — a seminal book is one so original that it prompts the existence of later works. But even that use — planting a metaphorical seed — goes back to the primary definition listed in Merriam-Webster: “of, relating to or consisting of seed or semen,” as in seminal vesicles. Etymonline says that the generative sense of the word has been in use since at least the 1630s.

So remember: The next time someone refers to a book or album or film or artwork as being seminal, you’re not only allowed but encouraged to ask whether this thing is generative or just covered in semen. If someone objects, just explain, “Hey, there’s thing called etymology, you clod.”

While we’re on the subject, is there any way that Donna Summer’s seminal 1980 dance track “Hot Stuff” is also the other kind of seminal as well? If you haven’t listened to it recently, do so, give the lyrics a once-over and then ask yourself just what kind of hot stuff she’s looking for.

Suggested topic of conversation for dinner parties: “Hey, can anyone guess why the disco anthem ‘Hot Stuff’ is doubly seminal?”

Words that are surprisingly sexual, previously:

Thursday, December 12, 2013

America’s Most Regal Actress

And then I realized that Regina King’s name literally means “queen king.” And that’s fitting, because spending your adolescence in the presence of Jackee and then emerging as the toughest, nailsiest, tough-as-nails cop on Southland means you get to own your regal status.

Oh, and extra cool points for voicing both Huey and Riley on Boondocks, which I didn’t know about until right now.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

King Koopa's Kool Kartoon Klub for Kkids!

One of the things about The Simpsons that has always seemed anachronistic to me is Krusty the Clown. Bart and Lisa being kids born in the early 80s, they shouldn't be watching a live-action Bozo the Clown type, and it's all the more so now that Bart and Lisa are kids born in the early 2000s. I didn't grow up watching any Bozo facsimile every weekday afternoon. My cartoons just introduced themselves. In fact, I think I wouldn't have liked a non-animated presence in these children's programming blocks. (No, shut up -- it's perfectly normal and healthy for children to relate more to anthropomorphic cartoons than it is to other humans.) But apparently this wasn't the case for all kids my age, and some of us actually had regional kids shows.

via retrojunk
Like the ones who got King Koopa's Kool Kartoons.

Yep, King Koopa -- that is, not Bowser but his hairless DIC-universe alterego -- hosted a half-hour live show as a spin-off to The Super Mario Bros. Super Show!, which also featured live action intros to the cartoons. But while Super Show had Captain Lou Albano (R.I.P.) and Danny Wells (R.I.P.) introducing licensed Nintendo-themed cartoons, Kool Kartoons had Koopa (Cobra Commander voice actor Chris Latta, also R.I.P.) pushing public domain animated shorts, which must have seemed neither kool nor cool by comparison. According to Wikipedia, the show aired only during the 1989 holiday season in the greater Los Angeles area on KTTV Fox 11, though that was enough to earn it a local Emmy nomination. (I hope the nom was for excellence in terrorizing sensitive children via grotesque masks)

Apparently the kids in the audience got to take the T-shirts home with them, but they had to turn in the Koopa Troopa helmets after taping completed, which makes me wonder if any of them are still floating around in L.A. A Google search, alas, has turned up nothing. I'd imagine that most thrift stores that actually had these weird, flesh-colored turtle helmets sitting around wouldn't even know what the hell they were supposed to be.

 At least one kid from Whittier got a Power Glove out of it, though. That's something.

I mean, someone should have gotten something out of this -- you know, aside from nightmares about a real-life malformed Koopa forcing you to watch public domain cartoons.

Discussion question: Should 1989 be far enough along, culturally speaking, that people should know that switching out the letter "C" for the letter "K," especially in alliteration, has some nasty associations?

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Fireballs of Our Youth

It’s 1993 in a Pizza Hut arcade. I’m decked out in the most stylish Gecko Hawaii tee that Mervyn’s had to offer, and I’m standing in front of a Street Fighter II cabinet. I’m not playing. I either have no quarters or have already spent my allotted quarters, so I’m watching an older kid play. He’s fighting as Ken — the banana blond, He-Man-looking of the game’s two main characters, if you’re unfamiliar, and a practitioner of a martial art that involves throwing fireballs. Each time he shoots one off, Ken announces it by yelling the name of the move. (In a real-life fight, I realize now, this would reduce the likelihood of taking your opponent by surprise.) Curiously, the kid playing the game does this as well: Whether as a result of a nervous tic or rampant fanboy-ism, but he also announces the move every time he performs it. Only he doesn’t say it right. Instead of “Hadouken,” the proper name for the fireball, he says “All you can,” which is what it kind of sounds like, given the crude voice samples available back in 1993 and the context of a noisy arcade.

I put up with this until I could take no more.

— All you can! All you can!

— You know, that’s not what it’s called.

— What? All you can! All you can!

— When he shoots the fireball, he’s not saying “All you can.”

— Yes he is, stupid.

— No, he’s saying “Hadouken.”

— “Ha-doo-kan”? What does that even mean?

— It’s the name of the move.

— Who told you that?

— Nintendo Power.

— Well, it’s wrong. He’s says “All you can” because he’s saying “This is what I can do.”

— No, that’s wrong. If you listen on the home version, you can totally hear it.

— Why would he be saying some dumb made-up word?

— It’s not made-up.

— Yes it is. All you can! 

— No, it’s Japanese.

— Okay, now I know you’re stupid. Ken wouldn’t be speaking Japanese.

— Why not?

— Because, stupid: Ken is American. Why would an American person be speaking Japanese?

— Because this game is from Japan.

— Then why are there white people in it? Why aren’t all the characters Japanese?

— Because they wanted people all over the world to play it.

— And you think they brought this game to America and didn’t realize that they had the American character speaking crazy Japanese language?

— Yes.

— No, that’s probably against the law. You can have people speaking a language people don’t understand. How would you know what they’re saying?

— I don’t think that’s against the law.

— I’m going to ask my dad.

At this point, the older kid has lost — apparently yelling your special move names doesn’t help you win simulated fights, either — but on his way out into the pizza-consuming area of this establishment, he taps on the shoulder of another gamer at another machine and then gestures at me: “Hey, this stupid kid right here thinks that the people who own this place went to Japan Asia to buy their Street Fighter game, and then they didn’t even get the one that was for speaking American.” And he laughs and walks away.

(While I’m taking wild stabs at what we had, two key phrases are actual, verbatim quotes that have stuck in my head all these years — “Japan Asia,” in the style of “London, England,” as if Japan were the capital of Asia, as well as that classic shorthand for ignorance, “speaking American.”)

Daniel Stern voiceover: I didn’t realize it at the time, but that exchange actually foreshadowed a great many similar ones I’d have later in life, often with people in positions of power and who I sadly cannot just leave in the arcade while I enjoy my pizza. And that, maybe, is the saddest part of all.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

At Last, the Sexualized Fungus You’ve Been Waiting For

You know that line in “Landslide” where Stevie Nicks says that she saw her reflection in the snow-covered hills? This is kind of like that.

mushroom penis
This because I’ve been a little pressed for time lately, so this is all I can offer you at the moment: mushrooms shaped remarkably like penises. It’s not much, but isn’t it also everything?

Thursday, December 5, 2013

A Not-So-Hidden Mickey

In line at the liquor store, I noticed the girl next to me looking down into my shopping bag. I looked too. This is what we both saw:

I looked up. So did she. Our eyes met. I said to her, as flatly as possible, “It is a Christmas present for Mother.” I didn’t break eye contact. She did.

And that, young lady, is why we shouldn’t be nosy.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

The Cover Art for My Forthcoming Adult Contemporary Album

This is what I look like:

By which I mean that I’m constantly perched on a wall, H. Dumpty-style, and constantly enshrouded by the gentle colors of a warm desert dusk whose arrival turns everything beneath it into silhouettes and then into barely nothing at all, and also I constantly have eyebrows or at least have had them so far and do not intend to remove them.

This is all for today.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

I Don’t Have a Pleasant Speaking Voice...

But that didn’t stop me from responding “Yeah, why the hell not?” to a request to guest on a podcast. Now, instead of just reading my words on a screen and imagining how garbled and nasal my voice sounds, you can find out for sure!

Click here to listen if your idea of a good time is hearing me and two other guys go on and on about subjects including but not limited to old video game commercials, bitcoins, the perversions of Reddit, hyena women, bull men and why American Horror Story is like fantasy football.

Also, while we’re on the subject of status updates, I’ll point out that I’ve started a Facebook page for Back of the Cereal Box — you know, because that’s where all the hip, young kids are nowadays. I realize this should have happened years ago, but I’m doing it now just to limit the amount of times I push my blog content on people who know me but maybe don’t find my nerdish leanings all that endearing. If you’d rather see Back of the Cereal Box content in your Facebook feed, just like my page to follow along.

This will be all.

King Dong

Did you know that Jessica Lange made her movie debut in the 1978 remake of King Kong? I think that makes for an appropriate beginning for an actress who is now muttering about retirement as she’s found success once again in genre work with American Horror Story. However, to me, that will never be the most notable thing about this version of King Kong. No, it it will be how much these film still makes King Kong’s finger look like a giant black penis pointing directly at Lange’s lady parts.

It’s. Just. So. Hard. Not. To. See.

I know there’s a great deal of academic discussion about King Kong and its underlying themes of racism and colonialism, and I’d imagine that a few people have tried to unpack the sexual imagery of King Kong in general or this scene in particular, but a Google search turned up nothing but people conjecturing about how big King Kong’s penis would be, and I decided that I hated the internet and closed that tab.

Coming in a distant third as far as notable things about this version of King Kong is the fact that Lange’s character is named Dwan. Not Dwayne. Dwan. An attractive would-be actress character named Dwan. It’s been forever since I’ve seen this movie. Do they explain that name? Did they think “Dawn” was already taken?

Dwan aside, it’s really hard to get past that giant King Kong penis finger. That, I suppose, may be the point.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Taking a Page from Super Mario Bros. 2

I write about Super Mario Bros. 2 a lot, I realize, especially considering that the game is now twenty-five years old. I suppose that results from the combination of it being especially surreal, even by Super Mario standards, and me having encountered it at the perfect age to be asking “Hey, why is that?” I actually still ask “Why is that?” fairly often. One of the things that had always bugged me about the game is its level structure. Super Mario Bros. makes sense: four sets of levels each composing a world, and eight world altogether. It’s all tidy and even. Super Mario Bros. 2 isn’t so easy: It has seven worlds, but an irregular number of stages.

The first world has three levels.

The desert world has three.

The ice world has three.

But the last world — the one on the clouds — only has two.

Granted they’re longer than most other levels, and harder too, but it should probably surprise most first-time players that it’s the second level that ends with a fight against the biggest of the big bads. There is no surprise third level.

“Hey, why is that?”

The answer, apparently, lies in the source material: Doki Doki Panic, the Japanese NES game that was remade into the American sequel we call Super Mario Bros. 2. In Doki Doki Panic, the four heroes are an Arabian family trying to rescue two children, Piki and Poki, who were sucked into a magical storybook. Also, there’s a pet monkey, but the monkey doesn’t get to do anything, which anyone can tell you is a lost opportunity on Nintendo’s part.

Watch the dramatic kidnapping (plus listen to a weirdly off-key version of a tune that should be familiar to anyone who beat Super Mario Bros. 2).

It doesn’t show it in the intro, but the storybook motif explains the missing final level, at least according to this page: In the scuffle, the final page of the book accidentally gets destroyed. Yep, the final level is missing because the ending of the book got removed. You, the player, has to go through the game and beat the big bad, essentially re-writing the lost ending.

Weird, right? And possibly a little meta? Especially when you look back on those stage intro screens I posted above and you realize that they retain that “page of a book” motif? They literally look like stacks of paper.

I’m assuming this backstory comes from the instruction booklet, which I (a) don’t have aside from this snippet and (b) couldn’t read anyway because it’s in Japanese. Can anyone with such access and a functional understanding of Japanese verify? The Mario Wiki, being a wiki made by and for crazed fans, isn’t so hot with the documentation and citation.

Previous times Super Mario Bros. 2 made me question things:

Friday, November 22, 2013

Another Twenty Free Movie Titles

To start out this follow-up to “Twenty Free Movie Titles” and “Twenty More Free Movie Titles,” I’d like to express my great disappointment that the title I wanted to kick this list off turned out to be a real movie. Yes, they actually made a movie called I Dismember Mama, and while it’s not a more horrific re-telling of I Remember Mama (mine was), it did beat me to the punch with that title.

Here are the other nineteen, plus one I just made up on the spot to replace I Dismember Mama.

It’s a Two-Way Street... of Terror

Vlad the Impala

Broken English & Shattered Femurs

One Long Splapfight

The Disappointing Adventures of Lazy Susan


Midwife Crisis

The Wrath of Connie Sellecca

They Cried “Hogwash!”

Not Until My Farts Get Better 
(Working title: Doctor’s Orders)

The Revenge of Mister Meter Maid



Uh Oh! No More Grandmas!

Auntie Christ

Stab Until There’s Nothing Left!

Huggy the Misunderstood Snake

Hats Dropping, Pants Popping

Duck Duck DEATH!

The Adventures of Bi-dra, the Bisexual Hyrda