Less video games; David Byrne after Talking Heads; book, music, and film reviews
Like most high art and lowbrow entertainment, computer games depend on a certain amount of conflict. I once grew so crazed during a botched round of Tetris — that serene game wherein geometric blocks drift from the sky — that I actually tore the F1 key off my keyboard. Just goes to show you that when man and machine interact, violence is always a possibility. Bearing this in mind, here are five kickass computer games that, while not entirely nonviolent, aspire to something greater than reproducing the clinical detail of exit wounds. — Hans Eisenbeis
Railroad Tycoon II Pop Top Software. Of all games in the empire-building genre, Railroad Tycoon offers the most impressive and offbeat alternative to the wildly popular, grandly nonviolent SimCity series. Whisking you back to the historic origins of railroading, Tycoon starts you off with $700,000 and a mandate to prove your capitalistic mettle. The profit motive looms large, and there’s the ever-present danger of both stock market and locomotive crashes. But blood and dismemberment — along with 19th century maladies like child labor and slavery — are left to the imagination.
Wipeout XL Psygnosis. Wipeout recasts the racing game as a 21st century spaceflight down a mind-blowing series of tracks, corridors, and urban canyons. Freed from the trifling constraints of gravity, and rocking to the beat of electronica from Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers, Wipeout is the rave generation’s update on the Atari classic Pole Position.
Oddworld: Abe’s Exodus GT Interactive. The only video game ever to be considered for an Academy Award, the cinematic Exoddus stars a goofy bipedal creature named Abe who must rescue his enslaved brethren — hilarious characters of the comic-book underground — from a labyrinthine brewery. Abe’s arsenal is limited to friendly phrases, meditation, a few rocks, and his own gas, and the game actively discourages violent behavior: If Abe kills too many of his opponents, you lose.
FIFA 99 EA Sports. Widely regarded as the finest sports simulation to date, FIFA 99 soccer incorporates spectacular full-action video with a staggering number of options for building and managing teams: You can handpick your lineup, venue, opponent — even the weather. Adding to the realism, EA Sports’ trademark interface lets you not only play the game, but watch BBC coverage of it — jabbering commentators and all.
You Don’t Know Jack Berkeley Systems/Bezerk. Jack takes “Jeopardy” and gives it the Comedy Central treatment — reformulating each answer not as a question, but as a joke. The game has been updated in recent years with all kinds of multimedia pinstriping, but the soul of You Don’t Know Jack remains its hilarious and talented group of writers. Science, pop culture, religion, and the media detritus of the late 20th century all converge on a single point: the punch line.
A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government By Garry Wills. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1999. 368 pages. $25. If you’ve ever wondered how we got into this mess — with neomilitary groups running around the woods hugging semiautomatic rifles and spouting the Second Amendment — then this book is for you.
A comprehensive examination of antigovernment attitudes from the revolutionary era to the present, Necessary Evil skewers assumptions based on a shoddy understanding of history. We learn that the founders did not set out to make despotism impossible, that the proponents of state militias wanted forces to keep slaves in line, and that the Second Amendment was never meant to assure our unimpeded access to firearms. Distrust of the federal government may be an intrinsically American trait, concludes Wills, but couching that distrust in constitutional platitudes is simply misguided.
Short of a concordance to the Federalist Papers, this is the book you want handy when someone claims, as Ronald Reagan liked to do, that the states are more important than the federal government because they existed first. That’s not true, Wills writes, and he quotes Abraham Lincoln: “Our states have neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution — none of them ever having been a state out of the Union.” — S.M.
Dr. Seuss Goes to War: The World War II Editorial Cartoons of Theodor Seuss Geisel By Richard Minear. New York: The New Press. 240 pages, 1999. $25. Given the way Dr. Seuss gently wove political themes into his tales of star-bellied sneetches and who-hearing Hortons, it’s no surprise that the beloved author’s pre-fame years were spent as a political cartoonist. As a staffer in the early ’40s for PM, a New York City-based, advertisement-free daily, Geisel — “Dr. Seuss” even then — used his pen, ink, and sly wit to lambaste the evils of fascism and spur a conflict-wary public on to war.
The Doctor’s satirical targets included isolationists, depicted as simpletons in “ostrich bonnets” sticking their heads in the sand; America, portrayed as a thumb-twiddling eagle in an Uncle Sam hat; and, of course, Adolf Hitler. But Seuss also pilloried more subtle aspects of the war, including the racism that pervaded the American war machine. In a 1942 cartoon, Uncle Sam rebukes a pipe organist whose black keys are draped in cobwebs: “Listen, maestro…if you want to get real harmony, use the black keys as well as the white!” (Oddly, this high-mindedness did not extend to the nation’s Japanese immigrants, whom Seuss portrayed as a squinty-eyed, traitorous lot.)
Dr. Seuss Goes to War succeeds as both a dark-humored history lesson and a glimpse into the artistic development that would carry into Seuss’ best-known books. It makes for a more complete picture of the man who would later speak of fantasy as “a necessary ingredient to living. It’s…what makes you laugh at the terrible realities.” — A.Z.
Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files By Jon Wiener. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999. 312 pages. $17.95. If only the New Left and the “youth culture” that coexisted with it had been as threatening to the U.S. government as the latter seemed to believe. That wistful thought occurs while perusing this chronicle of the Nixon administration’s harassment of John Lennon for his involvement in radical causes during the early ’70s.
The Nixonians were of course adept at using the power of the executive branch to “neutralize” political enemies. In Lennon’s case, the FBI and the Immigration and Naturalization Service were called upon — the former to apply surveillance skills it had honed while building files on other troublesome wordsmiths from Faulkner to Hemingway; the latter to immerse the rabble-rousing Liverpudlian in nightmarish bureaucratic entanglements.
Gimme Some Truth reproduces key documents from Lennon’s FBI file, the fruit of the author’s many protracted Freedom of Information Act lawsuits. For all of the unintentional humor that pervades them — the FBI classifying as “confidential” song lyrics published on an album jacket, for example — the documents convey a far more sobering message: how willing the government has been at times to spy on, intimidate, and harass those whom it regards as its most effective critics. — J.F.K.
No Way to Pick a President By Jules Witcover. New York: Farrar Straus and Giroux. 352 pages, 1999. $26. Witcover, a veteran political journalist, has covered every presidential election since Eisenhower, and the depth of knowledge he brings to this book makes it an election-year must-read. With solid history and a wealth of compelling anecdotes, Witcover crafts a clear-eyed denunciation of how we choose our president. He details fundamental flaws in the election process, from the corrupting influence of soft money to the distressing power of the electoral college to seat a president who has lost the popular vote (this has happened three times).
Witcover is most frustrated by two newcomers to the process: talking heads and consultants. These “hired guns,” the author contends, have eviscerated substance, elevated money, and made sure all roads to victory run through their offices.
The 2000 election, predicts Witcover, will prove a farce — leaving disaffected lovers of democracy to hang their heads, or perhaps rise up and find a better way. — S.W.
Jack Kerouac Reads On the Road Jack Kerouac. Ryko, 1999.The Beat mahatma’s own recordings of On the Road were long thought lost — until an archivist playing mislabeled acetates struck gold. Over the cracked hiss of record grooves, Kerouac reads from Part Three of his classic, capturing the San Francisco scene, “summer, August, 1949.” In his mellifluous hipster baritone, Kerouac conjures a Folsom Street jazz joint, his spontaneous prose rushing headlong into a bebop solo: “Everything came out of the horn, no more phrases, just cries, cries, ‘Baugh’ and down to ‘Beep!’ and up to ‘EEEEE!’… Everybody pushed around and yelled, ‘Yes! Yes! He done blowed that one!'”
Jazz shapes this album, for in addition to half an hour of On the Road — enough to satisfy any but the fiercest beatnik — are seductive tracks of Kerouac crooning “Ain’t We Got Fun” and “Come Rain or Come Shine,” and reading from his blues poetry. And if Kerouac’s voice weren’t draw enough, the album closes with Tom Waits and Primus’ bone-grinding rendition of Kerouac’s mad foray into songwriting, “On the Road.” — T.D.
Rux Revue Carl Hancock Rux. Sony/550 Music, 1999. A graduate of both New York City’s foster-care system and Columbia University, Hancock Rux is a wunderkind of the city’s slam poetry scene. The New York Times recently named him one of 30 Artists Under 30 Most Likely to Influence Culture, and after listening to Rux Revue, his musical debut, it’s immediately clear why.
In a dark, sweet basso profundo, Hancock Rux intones his poetry over hip-hop backing from the likes of Money Mark and Wah Wah Watson. Add arrangements by Beck and Beastie Boys collaborator John King to the mix, and you have a cutting-edge soundtrack to this young man’s ingenious verse.
On “Blue Candy” Hancock Rux recalls himself as a toddler discovering his grandmother dead in their apartment; bouncy bass-and-organ funk rolls in the background as the poet mines the word “blue” for meaning.
Think of Rux Revue as rap a la Gil Scott-Heron, with a healthy dose of spirituality thrown in. While Scott-Heron told us in the ’70s that “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Hancock Rux tells us now,”The revolution is in our collard greens, baby.” — J.W.
Shock-No-ParOctant. Up Records, 1999. Discontent with the sterile sounds of synthesizers and MIDI machines, Octant jury-rigged their own electronic instruments — including a robotic drum machine that pounds a real-life drum kit. The Seattle-based duo’s take on electronica is thus rawly tactile, with a live feel that belies its computerized origins. Their unusual marriage of high-tech and lo-fi, of baroque feedback loops and hummable melodies, is difficult to categorize but surprisingly easy to love.
On “Igneous,” Booker T.-worthy organ lines mingle with wildly distorted UFO tones, while the drumbeats on “Auto 1” push forward bass lines that sound as though they’ve been played backwards. But the duo’s simple vocals ground the music, keeping the songs from veering too far into abstraction. Shock-No-Par is adventurous fare, perhaps best described in the paradox posed by their song title, “Simplexity.” — T.D.
Inspiration Sam Rivers’ Rivbea All-Star Orchestra. RCA Victor, 1999. A jazz iconoclast who has collaborated with musical freethinkers from Miles Davis to Cecil Taylor, conductor and saxophonist Sam Rivers never seems to do a song the same way twice. Imagine funk idol Maceo Parker falling under the sway of abstract expressionism, and you have an idea of how Rivers’ new album combines aggressive dissonance, tricky rhythms, and unconventional grooves.
Rivers’ compositions swell to jarring climaxes before suddenly falling away to leave wide-open solo space for the orchestra’s all-star improvisers. Beneath the cacophonous exterior of tunes like “Solace” and “Nebula” lie warmly melodic themes — this in an era when many jazz experimentalists seem to distrust lyricism. At 77, Rivers has produced an album that any audacious young avant-gardiste would envy. — A.R.
Songs from My Funeral Snakefarm. Kneeling Elephant, 1999. Singer/songwriter Anna Domino performs traditional folk songs — “John Henry,” “Rising Sun” — with an unexpected twist: They’re arranged in danceable form, complete with drum loops and funk guitars. Yes, it takes a formidable leap of faith to listen to an album with such a setup, but Snakefarm — the duo of Domino and guitarist Michel Delory — rewards those who make the effort.
Thematically, the songs focus on murder, betrayal, and jealousy, and Snakefarm’s reworkings tease out the dark fatalism of the lyrics. Domino’s clear, uninflected delivery glides over a mix of stand-up bass, dance beats, slide guitars, and banjo, and breathes new life into timeless songs. — G.W.
Regret to Inform Barbara Sonneborn. 72 minutes. Sun Fountain Productions, 1998. This Oscar-nominated documentary is an elegy to women’s losses on both sides of the Vietnam War. In short, riveting interviews, Vietnamese women speak calmly of husbands killed, houses bombed, and tortures endured. The stories of the American widows are no less compelling. Their grief comes alive through small details and unanswerable, heart-wrenching questions: Was my husband a hero or a murderer? Did he suffer when he died?
The interviews are framed by the director’s own journey — with her Vietnamese friend, Xuan Ngoc Evans — to Que Son, the site of the mortar attack that killed her husband. Evans’ story — of watching an American soldier shoot her five-year-old cousin and working as a prostitute to support her family — overshadows Sonneborn’s self-conscious narrative. When Sonneborn finally arrives in Que Son, she finds that the malevolent jungle of her imagination no longer exists, if it ever did. Nor does the bitterness of the war — the woman who graciously shows her around the now-cultivated battleground was once married to a Viet Cong soldier. — R.H.
Instrument Jem Cohen and Fugazi. 115 minutes. Dischord, 1999. Many bands sing about revolution — Fugazi actually led one. The D.C. punk foursome showed a generation of musicians how to succeed outside the mainstream — eschewing commercial radio, music videos, and media hype; booking their own tours; producing their own records; and playing only low-priced, all-ages shows.
The film — a montage of Super 8, 16 mm, and video footage — documents a decade of Fugazi’s artistic and political strides, revealing the band members’ humor and personalities, but focusing mainly on their performances. The concert footage is superbly edited, and the making of this film exemplifies Fugazi’s ethic: This two-hour documentary cost less to produce than the average three-minute rock video. — M.M.
The Last Cigarette Kevin Rafferty and Frank Keraudren. 82 minutes. New Yorker Films, 1999. Smokesploitation flicks come in many brands, but few as Kool or alive with pleasure as this documentary. An unnarrated montage of black-and-white Hollywood fare, vintage television ads, and ’50s-era antismoking reels, The Last Cigarette lampoons America’s deadly romance with tobacco. Unfiltered propaganda competes on its own terms as the film splices both pro- and antismoking messages around footage of the Big Tobacco CEOs’ infamous “nicotine is not addictive” testimony. Seductive myths (“pipe smokers live longer”) and pornographic images of French inhaling are juxtaposed with cautionary — “the more you smoke the less you poke” — impotence tales and unintentionally hilarious exchanges between RJ Reynolds’ CEO and House subcommittee chair Henry Waxman on the nature of addiction.
The film’s treatment of Mr. Butts is ultimately evenhanded: The Last Cigarette pokes as much fun at our kitschy cultural responses to the ills of smoking as at the evils of the vice itself. — T.D.
Reviews by: Tim Dickinson, Rachel Hartigan, Jonathan Foster King, Steve McQuiddy, Michael Mechanic, Andrew Rosenblum, Jacob Ward, Speed Weed, Geoffrey Welchman, and Andrea Zeisler.
David Byrne: Not Brought to You By…
David Byrne is best known as the charismatic leader of Talking Heads, but his career path since the band’s 1991 breakup has been anything but a road to nowhere. Byrne has since distinguished himself as a filmmaker, graphic designer, photographer, author, and music impresario. His current projects include hosting PBS’s acclaimed music hour, “Sessions at West 54th,” and running his own record label, Luaka Bop. In November, the 47-year-old artist will publish Your Action World, a biting parody of the iconography of advertising and the language of corporate America. The book is evocative of the late Tibor Kalman’s work as well as the “subvertising” campaigns of Adbusters magazine. Byrne spoke with us by phone from the Luaka Bop offices in New York City. —Jenn Shreve
New York is the advertising capital of the world. Do you ever find yourself frustrated by being immersed in all that?
Of course. Especially with the sense that every aspect of our lives has logos and labels attached. Or it’s brought to you by someone. This toilet sponsored by…
Every part of the culture is owned by something. It no longer emerges organically — or if it does, it’s appropriated as it rears its head. Even your PBS show, “Sessions at West 54th,” is sponsored by IBM. How do you as an artist respond to this glut of advertising?
By making a book like Your Action World. If you’re being spoken to all the time and you can’t speak the language, then you’re helpless. But if you can at least speak the language [of advertising] and understand it…that’s a self-defense mechanism. In mimicking advertising, did you have any epiphanies about how we’re being communicated to?
I came to the conclusion that any ad that appears to be saying one thing is also saying its opposite. So I put together [paradoxical] things, like drug paraphernalia and inspirational phrases. I was struck by your send-ups of the kind of corporate inspirational posters sold in in-flight magazines.
I found myself returning to those — and to rap lyrics, which are the extreme opposite. Instead of everything being up, up, up, everything in gangsta rap is bad, bad, worse and worse. But I think the positive [corporate] stuff is actually scarier: It promotes a mythic fantasy world that’s just as extreme as the world of gangsta rap lyrics, and just as unreal. Your use of images that undermine text, and vice versa, reminded me of the late Tibor Kalman’s work. You were both a friend and collaborator. How would you describe his influence on your work?
Obviously we worked together quite a lot. I could go to him with an idea, and he would understand immediately what I was getting at and take it a step further. Kalman was very much a proponent of corporate sponsorship of art — Tibor and I used to have — not out-and-out arguments — but discussions when he was doing Colors magazine. He’d say, “Look. These companies are becoming very enlightened. They let me do this magazine, and I can pretty much do whatever I want — no strings attached.” When it’s presented that way [it doesn’t sound so wrong]. Levi’s was recently looking for hot young artists to sponsor in San Francisco. They got money, but the catch was they also had to wear Levi’s hats.
I’m sure Levi’s doesn’t tell an artist what to write. But I always get the feeling that — because the brand’s attached — the whole work becomes an ad in some way. For years, people have been predicting that world music will break out commercially in the United States. Do you believe that?
Not as a genre, but I think individual artists are going to escape that ghetto. It’s already happening. There was a band this year — Les Nubiens — French-African women who started getting played on urban radio. In the past, they definitely would have been marginalized in a world music thing, even though their music is hip-hop oriented. You’re one of only a few established musicians offering free, downloadable music online. This at a time when record companies view the new technology as a threat to copyrights and profits.
To be honest, I think it’s bullshit. I have yet to be able to download an MP3 file, and I’ve tried many times. It’s really for kids who have the time to wait that long to hear one song and decide whether they like it. I don’t think there’s any danger. I used to tape records for friends. It’s a way of building community. When you have people passing along tapes with your song on it — eventually they buy something and they come to your concerts. That’s how an audience gets built.