Featured Post


If you're a student looking for syllabi, click the "Academic Home Page" link on your right, and start there.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

"He Sings All the Verses All the Time, Especially the Ones That We'd Like to Leave Out"

The Boss's tribute to Pete Seeger, from five years ago:

Also, this. Pete Seeger, RIP.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

40 Years of Geeky Fun

As best as the best geek research available is able to determine, Dungeons & Dragons--the game, the lifestyle, the way of appropriating and accommodating oneself to the world--first emerged exactly 40 years ago today. Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, veterans of tabletop wargaming, got together one afternoon in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, with whomever responded to an open invitation to show up, and rolled out their innovation: a war game which was actually a role-playing game, a game where each player was an individual character, with various skills, capable of independent tasks, obliged to work with other players' characters in completing a fantasy task. And, like that (though in truth it took a while, and there was a lot of unexpected and sometimes bitter legal and financial road ahead), a gaming empire was born. And for that empire, I--like millions of others--have to offer up to their memory (both of them having passed on) some thanks. They and other early creative minds built a legacy of putting into rule books and dice and little figurines and maps the basic conceptual story-telling tools which, I think, sum up one of the great and enduring modern transformations of fantasy literature: that we can bring our individuality into worlds of fate and tragedy and heroism, and rather than being swept along by an environment which is strange and beautiful and not our own, we can play.

My Dungeons & Dragons history is a little younger than the game itself--but not by much. I'm 45 years old, born in 1968, and I'm pretty certain I started getting into role-playing games when I was in fifth or sixth grade. Certainly I was building my collection of D&D stuff by 1980. So that gives me 33 years of history with the game (though, to be fair, there was a ten-year stretch in there, between covering my college and the first part of my graduate school years, when I didn't have anything to do with the game), which is something I admit I'm proud of. I'm proud of all the 2nd edition rule books and modules which I still peruse on occasion, and the campaigns my brothers and I put together every year or so. Dungeons & Dragons (and other RPGs as well, but D&D--or, more properly, AD&D--was always and is still my first choice) was as big a part of my growing up--and probably still is, on one level or another, as huge a part of my basic cultural cognition--as film, literature, television, comic books, or any other avenue of escapism, imagination, or obsessive debate. Gygax and Co. gave me and millions of others a great boon more than a generation ago; the least I can do is say thanks.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "God Part II"

In my opinion, one of U2's best songs, a short neglected masterpiece from their most misunderstood album from their most ignored tour. When I defend the authenticity and quality of U2's typically grandiose rock-and-roll statements, this is what I'm talking about.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Didn't Monty Python Already Do This?

Oh yes, they did. But this one is good too. Plus, until anyone tells me otherwise, I'm going to assume it's completely accurate.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "Lawyers in Love"

Who doesn't miss the Cold War sometimes?

"Be Quiet but Friendly; Proud, but not Arrogant; Joyous, but not Boistrous"

Via Slate magazine comes this revealing document, signed by Martin Luther King, Jr., exhibiting a brave and, in the very best tradition of America's civil religion, both a deeply liberal and a deeply Christian attitude in the wake of their victory in the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott:

Integrated Bus Suggestions

This is a historic week because segregation on buses now been declared unconstitutional. Within a few days the Supreme Court Mandate will reach Montgomery and you will be re-boarding integrated buses. This places upon us all a tremendous responsibility of maintaining, in face of what could be some unpleasantness, a calm and loving dignity befitting good citizens and members of our Race. If there is violence in word or deed it must not be our people who commit it.

For your help and convenience the following suggestions are made. Will you read, study and memorize them so that our non-violent determination may not be endangered. First, some general suggestions:

1. Not all white people are opposed to integrated buses. Accept goodwill on the part of many.
2. The whole bus is now for the use of all people. Take a vacant seat.
3. Pray for guidance and commit yourself to complete non-violence in word and action as you enter the bus.
4. Demonstrate the calm dignity of our Montgomery people in your actions.
5. In all things observe ordinary rules of courtesy and good behavior.
6. Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the South. Do not boast! Do not brag!
7. Be quiet but friendly; proud, but not arrogant; joyous, but not boistrous.
8. Be loving enough to absorb evil and understanding enough to turn an enemy into a friend.


1. The bus driver is in charge of the bus and has been instructed to obey the law. Assume that he will cooperate in helping you occupy any vacant seat.
2. Do not deliberately sit by a white person, unless there is no other seat.
3. In sitting down by a person, white or colored, say "May I" or "Pardon me" as you sit. This is a common courtesy.
4. If cursed, do not curse back. If pushed, do not push back. If struck, do not strike back, but evidence love and goodwill at all times.
5. In case of an incident, talk as little as possible, and always in a quiet tone. Do not get up from your seat! Report all serious incidents to the bus driver.
6. For the first few days try to get on the bus with a friend in whose non-violence you have confidence. You can uphold one another by a glance or a prayer.
7. If another person is being molested, do not arise to go to his defense, but pray for the oppressor and use moral and spiritual force to carry on the struggle for justice.
8. According to your own ability and personality, do not be afraid to experiment with new and creative techniques for achieving reconciliation and social change.
9. If you feel you cannot take it, walk for another week or two. We have confidence in our people. GOD BLESS YOU ALL.


It must be said that, by most measures, this act of faith and confidence in the ultimate goodwill of the white population of Montgomery failed. Soon to come were bombings and lynchings; city leaders doubled down on segregation in other areas of public life, at one point even making it illegal for blacks and whites to congregate together for any non-work-related purposes whatsoever. Rosa Parks herself eventually left Montgomery, facing death threats and having been blacklisted by potential employers. Soon, the African-American population of the city were back to mostly riding at the back of buses. Legal victories, as always, are insufficient without social transformations. But this was a legal victory which made possible the beginnings of a real change in the public space of Montgomery, Alabama, ratifying a direct action taken by thousands of brave, civic-minded people, and as such set a precedent which made our nation a better one, in time. All praise to their good intentions, and their self-sacrificing acts.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Let Us Praise the 1970s

Withywindle started it, and now David is playing along, so I can too. After all, haven't I documented at great length how pop music came alive for me in the 1970s, through the power of radio? So I happily take up David's challenge, and herewith present 10 reasons why I agree with Withy's post title: the 1970s were, indisputably, the apogee of American pop music:

1) James Taylor, "Anywhere Live Heaven" (1970): I didn't discover this song until the 1990s--but then, with a few (but important!) exceptions, I didn't really understand and appreciate the 70s until more than a decade after I'd lived through them.

2. Ringo Starr, "It Don't Come Easy" (1971): If you're the least talented of the Beatles, you're still more talented than most musicians on God's green earth (of course, if you have George Harrison playing lead guitar and Bad Finger providing your background vocals, that doesn't hurt either).

3. Chicago, "Saturday in the Park" (1972): A great track by what was, in those early years, the greatest mellow-white-guy funk band of all time.

4. Stevie Wonder, "Living for the City" (1973): "Her brother's smart / he's got more sense than many / His patience's long but soon he won't have any / To find a job is like a haystack needle / Cause where he lives they don't use colored people"--simply comparable stuff.

5. Paul McCartney and Wings, "Band on the Run" (1974): The second appearance (and not the last!) of a former Beatle on this list, and one I'm absolutely unapologetic about. Wings wasn't a great band, but when Paul was on (and he certainly was here, channeling as he was the spirit of the Fab Four), he was really on.

6. David Bowie, "Fame" (1975): Bowie was finished with his latest album, and was hanging out in New York City, waiting for other details to be resolved, when he and John Lennon got together. A one-day jam session resulted in this angry beauty.

7. Heart, "Magic Man" (1976): In my view, the most critically underrated heavy metal band of all time. Could sexism have something to do with that? Gosh, I wonder.

8. Player, "Baby Come Back" (1977): I was actually singing along with this some out loud as I drove home from an appointment last night. No joke.

9. Al Stewart, "Time Passages" (1978): Quite possibly my favorite pop song of all time. My first favorite at least, that's for certain.

10. Electric Light Orchestra, "Don't Bring Me Down" (1979): Dancing to this out in the middle of playground in sixth grade while singing this song to myself in my head did little for my popularity, but I'm sure it built character.

And just for the heck of it...

11. George Benson, "Give Me the Night" (1980): A fitting benediction to a great decade.

And who haven't I found room for here, all of whom deserved inclusion? Only: The Bee Gees; Cat Stevens; The Commodores; Creedence Clearwater Revival; The Doobie Brothers; Earth, Wind, and Fire; Elton John; Genesis; John Denver; Kool & the Gang; Led Zeppelin; Neil Diamond; Paul Simon; The Police; Queen; The Rolling Stones; Tree Dog Night; War; The Who; and many, many, many more. Pop music's apogee? You bet it was.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saturday Night Live Music: "I Wanna Destroy You" and "Gene Hackman"

Missed last week, so I'm back this Saturday with a double-does of SNLM, just to make up for it. These are a couple of tunes by the talented and prolific singer-songwriter Robyn Hitchcock, the first a typically whimsical mix of political anger and odd punk fatalism, played when Hitchcock was on a reunion tour with his old band The Soft Boys back in 2001; the second is another one of his patented bits of arch, stream-of-consciousness weirdness, this one capturing the reality of Hollywood's major studio releases in the 80s and 90s. I wish I could have found a live video of him playing "Mr. Kennedy," my favorite of his many songs (though here's "Viva Sea-Tac!", another off-beat favorite). In truth, my whole relationship with Hitchcock's music is complicated and shot through with regret; as I explained in this old post of mine, I actually saw the tour from which the first recording here is taken, but I just didn't appreciate it at the time. I have to put that aesthetic loss of mine up there with having seen the first New York City production of Les Misérables in the spring of 1987, as a callow and unappreciative almost-high school graduate, and falling asleep during it. Oh well; life goes on. Mr. Hitchcock certainly does.