Monday, October 30, 2006


Now that I’ve got a bambino there’s less time to just skedaddle to see a film, any film, the way I used to, but I try to stay abreast of current releases as best I can, and if we miss the good ones, they’re on NetFlix and in the house a few months later. Though I’ve hardly seen a fraction of the films released this year, I think I can say that 2006 has been a pretty weak year for film, just as 2005 was before it. I have seen a mere three this year that I’d recommend to anyone, not counting “American Hardcore”, a film I’d recommend, but to very few if you know what I mean. Still in the NetFlix queue or awaiting theatrical release that might join this list: “Street Fight”, “The Beat That My Heart Skipped”, “I Am a Sex Addict”, “The Puffy Chair” and “Little Children” – all which look great & hopefully are. Here’s what I want you to see in lieu of these:

1. UNITED 93 – This film is a masterpiece. I have never been more affected by a film, except perhaps the first time I saw “Apocalypse Now” in the late 70s or when I saw “Scenes From a Marriage” during my engagement – it is seriously that gripping. Everything you felt as September 11th, 2001 unwound itself will come back just as powerfully, and it’s icing on the cake that many of the “actors” in this film are actual FAA personnel playing themselves, reliving that day for the cameras. Everything they do, and everything that the people of the doomed flight do and say, is so natural and believable that you have to remind yourself that you’re not watching a reality show or a hidden camera that was recovered from the wreckage. There’s no fanfare or soaring music when Todd Beamer tells his fellow passengers “let’s roll” – in fact, he tosses it off carelessly & as part of a larger sentence – which is probably the way it happened in real life. This is truly a masterful achievement, and if you loved director Paul Greengrass’s “Bloody Sunday” as I did, well – this one’s even better.

2. BRICK – At the end of this suburban high school potboiler noir, I just had a huge laugh, like, “what the hell did we just see??”. Huge points to the director for immense creativity – grafting all the cliché language and mannerisms of 1940s noir films onto a film set in the most sterile & soulless Southern California high school imaginable (as opposed to, say, New York at night or swinging Paris). You have to rewind the DVD over and over to get what these sleuthing shamuses are saying, but it’s worth it, as it’s usually ridiculously funny once you mentally translate the hardboiled vocabulary of noir films into real English. It’s also a pretty good whodunit as well. We need more films that take absurd risks like this one.

3. THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP – Saw this in the theater a few weeks ago, having been dumbfounded by director Michael Gondry’s previous film “The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”. While not quite as jarring or well-acted as that one, “The Science of Sleep” is still a funny and ultimately tragic film of fantastical mental illness and thwarted romance. I am a fan of everything I’ve seen Gael Garcia-Bernal in, and he’s on camera in just about every frame of this one – and naturally he’s great. Remember how everyone got so hyped-up about “Being John Malkovich” because it was soooo weird and different? This is at least 100 times more unique and crazed as that exceptionally mediocre film, and is touching and genuinely sad to boot. It’s like “Adaptation” – strange and unlike much you’ve seen before, but understandable and connected to real emotions that you’ll recognize. I dug it.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I’ve pretty much been a proud atheist since the age of 9, which is when my father told me he didn’t believe in god and would never practice religion. That just sounded so right to me, and so in tune with the non-spiritual, non-magical realities of the world I’d experienced to date, that I never looked back. I was also brought up in as secular a household as one can imagine, save for a sole Sunday when my mom, in an attempt, I believe, to integrate into the local (Sacramento, CA) community, took my sister & I to the neighborhood Catholic (!) church. I say (!) because our forebears are true-blue Connecticut Yankee/WASPs. Her attempt to church us lasted just that one morning, at which point she retreated and it was never a concern again. In college I joined the campus atheist society, which was really two geeks with chips on their shoulders & who were at cultlike & dogmatic as the hardest-core Pentecostals or whatever. I quit after two meetings. Throughout my adulthood and until the past few years, I’ve defended the religious and the believers from the attacks of those who would stereotype and marginalize them, primarily from those on the Left who squawked incessantly like paranoid Chicken Littles about “the religious right”, and who made it a point to include anyone who’d set foot in a church in that category. “Religion has been such a force for good in the world, despite what I might think about it”, I’d say, along with the other familiar trope, “20th-century religions are essentially about peace and tolerance; the days of the Inquisition are over”.

In 2006, with all due respect, I’m less convinced about the benignity of religion than ever. My defensive responses to those who criticize Christian proselytizers, Jewish paradise-builders and especially Islamic murderers are fewer and more far-between than they used to be. Part of the reason I’m waking up, as many quietly secular atheists are, is surely the increased use of suicide bombing of innocents in the name of religion & martyrdom, which is so sickening and depraved it stamps out all reason, moderation & inquiry – and which is surely part of its appeal to those who employ it. It has forced me to look more critically at the myths and fairy tales mankind has told itself throughout time to ward off fear of death and discomfort, and what I see looks more and more preposterous – and often dangerous – every time I look. SAM HARRIS, too, has decided to speak up, for fear of being overwhelmed with guilt and shame for not having done so. His 2005 book “The End of Faith” posits that we only have less than a generation’s worth of time to wean world society off the suffocating succor of religion, lest we find ourselves on the brink of nuclear annihilation by scripture-quoting lunatics. Heady stuff, but very difficult for me to refute in light of the evidence and modern trends. His policy in advancing his point of view is pretty scorched-earth. First, he carefully takes apart the tenets of religious belief, which is not difficult. I actually laughed out loud at the absurdity of some of the arguments for the existence of an all-knowing, all-seeing creator, myths we’re all aware of but too cowed to approach in the manner of critical, skeptical inquiry which they deserve. I won’t go into detail, but Harris is withering, much as Bertrand Russell and Christopher Hitchens and other famous atheists have been when tackling the same subject, and when I read their arguments I can’t help but applaud at their unapologetic eloquence in saying what I think and what I believe needs to be said. His several pages quoting verbatim what the Koran says must be done to unbelievers and infidels is terrifying, and should be required reading for anyone who ever asked the simpleton question, “Why do they hate us?”

Harris believes that even benign “faith” and anything short of active hostility toward all religion is dangerous. I see his point, but I can’t say that I’m enthusiastic in joining him full-bore in the crusade. I think it has more to do with my own live-and-let-live, non-confrontational makeup than anything else; I can’t honestly stand in front of a true believer and ask them refute their faith by the power of my more superior logic, anymore than I’d slap a drink out of someone’s hand at a straight-edge show. I have met and I know dozens of loving and good and intelligent people whose ability to believe in their supposed creator runs the gamut from outwardly-professed belief to agnosticism. I do not believe that their moderate religiosity is keeping them from opposing immoderate religiosity in all its forms – particularly the cult of the martyr or jihadi. Sure, I’d rather they gave up the comfort of the fairy tale and join me on the other side, but we probably agree on far more than we disagree about.

One quirk of Harris’ book that really made me think was his exploration of a non-religious spirituality in the last third of the book. While this section is the least persuasive and the most lacking in a coherent argument, I am with Harris in that there is a “spiritual” dimension in humanity that doesn’t rely on believing the creationist myths that have been handed to us. For Harris, this spirituality and ability to shape the contours of his own mind is revealed in meditation, believe it or not, and in pushing the mind in directions that don’t come naturally. I too believe that we can naturally do more than we typically do with the immensely powerful brains we’ve been given, and that what can be found in so doing can in fact have a “spiritual” dimension to it. Those – not me – who look to non-creationist Eastern philosophies and to yoga & similar disciplines are & have been doing this for eons, with professed results that border on the transcendent. I believe them, but personally lack the need for spiritual guidance at this point. Maybe when the fear of death really kicks in, or when something happens that tests my inherent reliance on reason and logic, I’ll reach like so many others for the easy comfort and illogical answers found in organized religion. I hope, though, that I reach for this book and others with its heft instead, and then get by with the complex wits given to each of us, which are solely our responsibilities to master and bring to their fullest potential without crutches and self-placed handicaps.

Monday, October 23, 2006


I knew that seeing this film would be something I wouldn’t be able to restrain myself from writing about. So much for my self-imposed hermetic exile from music writing – it lasted all of one month. My personal ties to hardcore are those of the relative latecomer. In 1981, when this was all exploding across the US, I was 13-14 years old. For some kids – I always think of Lou Barlow and J.Mascis from DEEP WOUND – that was fine, they started participating and sneaking away from their parents for the surefire comfort of the pit at an exceptionally young age. Not me. Now, a couple years later I listened to the Maximum Rock and Roll radio show and a similar local college radio (KFJC) show called “Vinyl Rites” every single week, and got to hear all the great bands of ’82-’83 as their 45s and comps were first coming out (though I remember digging SIN 34, M.D.C. and a lot of dopey English punk the most), but the first hardcore show I saw was a 1985 Dead Kennedys/7 Seconds/Whipping Boy show, followed shortly thereafter by a Circle Jerks/Wasted Youth gig. Also saw the Bad Brains, D.R.I., Aggression and a crapload of crappy HC/punk bands around 1985-86, but nothing that was as remotely cool as seeing Black Flag with Dez on vocals; Minor Threat; Die Kreuzen; or Negative Approach. I missed it. Ah well. By 1986 I was totally obsessed and immersed in the hardcore of 4-5 years’ previous & was a bonafide punk rock record collector, but I always knew I’d missed the boat by a couple of years.

That aside, when I watched this film I somewhat perversely felt like I was re-living something I’d gone through. That’s probably because I threw myself so heartily into the 1981-84 mindset, bands, fanzines etc. that I’d unwittingly made myself an expert on the scene without actually having gone through it firsthand. Therefore, just as I felt when I was watching the MINUTEMEN documentary “We Jam Econo”, it really didn’t matter how great the film was or wasn’t, there was just such a constant barrage of reference points (I met that guy once! I had that record! Wow, I remember him! My cousin was at that show! etc.), most of which had been filed away back in my cranium, that it was a joy to let them loose in a flood again. “AMERICAN HARDCORE”, fortunately, is a pretty solid film through and through. While the story it tells is as scattershot and anarchic as the music it profiles, that’s also a strength, as it keeps you on your toes for nearly 2 hours, ready to devour every pearl of moronic wisdom from the all-grown-up hardcore elders.

I read the oral history/non-fiction book this film was based on, and this keeps very much in that spirit of breaking the hardcore punk “outbreak” scene by scene. Overlording everything is Los Angeles, and Black Flag in particular – which makes me happy, since that also fits my personal view of how punk rock became hardcore (the ‘Flag led the way and converted the nation on aggression, speed and force), and because LA arguably gave more incredible rock music to the world in the first half of the eighties than the rest of the United States combined. The other linchpin of the film are the BAD BRAINS, and that jives with my recollections from ‘zines and the radio shows – they were adored, and when you watch the live clips in this film it’s clear why. (The Target Video of a 1982 San Francisco show of theirs is a must-see if you can find it). Some assorted highlights and lowlights:

-- The realization (and I forget which guy makes this point) that hardcore punk probably truly was the first strain of rock music that was not reliant on black music (blues, R&B etc.) for its beat, tempo and structure. A 100% Caucasian music – for whatever that’s worth.

-- The lack of attention or even derision paid to New York City hardcore, which had by far the worst bands of this era, and came at it way late to boot. The book paid way too much attention to this scene; the movie does not repeat the mistake.

-- Watching the meatheads from SS DECONTROL and NEGATIVE FX hold court on straight edge livin’ while acting like bruising lower-class jock goons. The singer of the latter wore a Bruins hockey jersey on stage and called up his “Boston Crew” to sing with him – what a dork!

-- Brief footage of SSD and GANG GREEN after they’d gone metal (’85-’86), particularly the Tin Pan Alley-meets-hair farmer outfits being worn by SSD at their last show, which are amazing, and the full-blown skateboard ramp Gang Green took onstage with them

-- The inanities spewed by Vic Bondi from Chicago band Articles of Faith (who were awful). The guy has this practiced set of “quotables” he throws out, as if he’d been practicing them in front of the mirror for weeks. Sure enough, many of these made it into the film’s preview – but I still don’t buy this guy as a true representative of anything.

-- The contrasting claims by Steve DePace from FLIPPER and Moby (!) about whether or not Moby spent any time fronting Flipper. This is the sort of low-stakes controversy I was not familiar with and naturally would love to learn more about – pretty great that full-time member DePace has no idea what Moby’s talking about, though.

The other thing that struck me was what the ravages of time have done to the hardest of the hardcore. Chris Doherty from GANG GREEN, who was a notorious celebrator of alcohol, can barely rasp out his words and unfortunately looked sick; others who were known to have routinely answered the “party with me, punker” call in the 80s look nearly as bad. I’m no teetotaler, but I couldn’t help but notice how contrastingly healthy and vibrant-looking the fortysomething Ian McKaye and Henry Rollins were – two guys who, to the best of my knowledge, haven’t touched a drop in three decades. It makes a drinker think, doesn’t it? I’ll bet former straight-edger “Springa” from SS DECONTROL has had a few since ’81, though.

It’s really something to have a sustained mental vision of these folks that I spent an inordinate amount of time listening to, reading about, and thinking about, only to see them 20-25 years older and, in some rare cases, wiser. It’s why I’ll always go see a film like this about bands I enjoyed in my relative youth, and if your ears can tolerate nearly two hours of intense, righteous, blazing hardcore punk & lots of blabberin’ about it, then this is a film for you too.

Friday, October 20, 2006


We got an email from some fellas who are starting a new print fanzine called THE ZAP GUN, and figured you should know about it. Here’s what they told us:

For many many years Ryan Wells and I (Scott Soriano) have been talking about doing a print zine. For a few months in those many many years we actually worked on on and then quit for some reason or another. A few months ago we decided to give it a go. This time we actually have stuff in motion. This time we actually have a name for it. This time it is gonna get done.

With that we announce The Zap Gun. Some time this winter you will see a brand new print zine featuring interviews with Pink Reason, Home Blitz, the Not Not Fun Records people, and other; an updated article on late 70s San Francisco art punk; an A Frames Euro tour diary; lots of reviews, cartoons, and more.

Because we both consume a huge amount of records and reviews need to be timely, we have created a web site that will run the reviews (which will also see print). The site is Right now there are reviews up of recent records by Hank IV, Bear Proof Suit, Billy Bao, Coughs, Deep Sleep, Dead Moon, Hue Blanc's Joyless Ones, Imaginary Icons, The Kids, Jay Reatard, and more.

And that is about it. If you feel you have something to contribute feel free to contact us. We might say No but we will be very nice about it, kinda like how your boss lets you sit on his lap when he talks about his raise instead of yours.

Oh my god you guys that is soooo gross! That web site again is linked right here: ZAP GUN.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006


Okay, I will tell you. I called it quits just last month, September 2006, with a music-only blog called Agony Shorthand that I'd nurtured like a young suckling lamb for over 3 years. I reckoned I'd probably start something up again in fairly short order focusing on "the written word", 'cuz that's just how I roll. I wasn't sure if I'd be unveiling my long-schemed "political rant blog", my "amateur film scholar" blog, my "militant atheist" blog, or just some total redux of the thing I'd done previously - a buncha blah blah blah about my record collection. So I decided it made sense to do it all, and a little more too.

Implicit in all this is the cleared-eyed realization that, on "the Internet", when you specialize, you tend to bring in targeted, dedicated traffic, and a lot more of it than when you generalize. I know I personally have found blogs that recount the day's events and the passing fancy of the moment to be beyond boring. This'll only have a little bit of that. No, my goal here is simply to have a repository for stuff I want to write about, which could take any form but will likely be centered on culture, the arts, societal stuff - but not my family, my breakfast or my navel. With Agony Shorthand I sort of hamstrung myself into a bind in which any given film or book review would've stuck out like a sore thumb, but there were times when I just wanted to tell you about it so goddamn much that I had to instead place my rant into a special place deep within my belly, where it would fester and grow tumors. I didn't enjoy that, so here's DETAILED TWANG.

"Detailed Twang", by the way, is the name of a record by the crude British uber-D.I.Y. band THE DOOR AND THE WINDOW. That's your (and my) first clue that this blog will probably continue to feature its fair share of music writing. The rut I got into with my last one was setting the self-perpetuating expectation that content would be updated nearly every day, which to my chagrin & sometime frustration, I pushed myself to do in spite of having, like you, a real life away from the computer. I can say now that that won't be the case here, but who the hell knows. I might post some music here, maybe a video or two, might even put some digital coupons on the site so you can go shopping later. I hope you enjoy the good times here, and come back to see us next Monday, when the party really gets rolling.