Thanksgiving time

I called my parents on Thanksgiving. They had had a quiet holiday dinner at home.

"Yeah, your father's watching TV and I'm here on the couch resting." My mom is nearly 70. She works two jobs: deli cashier and department store clerk. She's on her feet 18 hours a day, 6 days a week.

"Ma, you didn't go anywhere today?"

"I haven't heard from any of these people. Well, that's okay. I don't need anybody to entertain me on the holidays. Hell, I'm just glad to have the day off."

"These people" were my father's other children, all 8-10 of them. (My mom disputes the paternity of certain siblings.) Technically, I was one of "these people"; my mom is actually my stepmother. Usually, though, I bat for my mom's team.

My mom continued. "I know Johnny was having something cause he asked your sister what her plans were. Well, I didn't want to go. I'm tired. I could have gone to Marilyn's, she called here, but I wasn't doing that. I cooked a turkey. It'll probably get dried up cause who's going to eat it?"

Mom says "your sister" meaning her daughter, the only sibling younger than me and the only other one who's half-white. In unkinder times, we were called "the mongrel children" by the older kids. (Johnny and Marilyn are "these people.")

"Ma, did anybody come by?"

"I invited Carolyn over. She brought macaroni and cheese for like 20 people. I mean, it's good macaroni and cheese, but who can eat all this food?"

Carolyn is my oldest sister. She raised a lot of the kids when my dad was between alliances -- I'd say wives, but we don't really do marriage. Every few months Carolyn and my mom stop speaking to each other. Apparently, they have negotiated a holiday detente.

I hear the doorbell ring on my mom's end of the phone.

"Hold on. Who is this ringing the bell this time of night?"

My dad opens the door. It's some guy asking for money. He says his car is broken down at the end of the block and he's got two kids to get home.

My dad has dementia. He's 82. I'm 600 miles away from my parents, listening on the other end of the phone.

Then the guy is gone. My dad gave him the money.

My mom says, "John, how can you open the door for some guy you don't know, late at night like this?"

"I've been knowing that guy 40 years."

"You don't know that guy. That guy is a bum, a scam artist."

"Everyone's a bum to you. That's that white supremacy in you."

"You know him? So what's his name then? And why is the car parked down the street? You walk down the street and see if there's a car."

"Why don't you walk down the street with me?"

"I'm not walking cause there's no goddam car and no kids neither."

The door slams.

"Look at this! He's gone out and locked me in here. Now if this bum comes sneaking in through the back door my ass is trapped in here."

"Well, Ma, if that happens, go upstairs and lock yourself in the bedroom and call the cops."

"I'm not doing that. I'll take the key out of my coat pocket and get the hell out of here."

Mom is a problem-solver, in her way.

"You see this? What kind of shit is this? If this was a stickup guy, he could push his way in here and I could get killed in the process. It just takes a guy to reach in his pocket, pull out a gun, shoot you in the stomach, and force his way in the house. He could be here waiting for me to come home from work, with the house ransacked, and then the two of us dead up in here. Right?"

Who could deny it? Then my mom surprised me. "I know who that guy is! That's the guy from the roof."

I'm all ears.

"This is about 4 months ago, in the summer. I must not have worked that night. I'm coming home myself, your father's out walking the streets. All of a sudden, here's this guy putting a ladder up to the roof. I'm thinking, what the fuck is this? I say to him, Excuse me? What are you doing? He says, There's an old man who lives here. I saw him walking down the street this morning and he told me he needs his gutters cleaned. I said, These gutters don't need to be cleaned. You get down off that roof. I mean, what am I going to do if this bum falls off the roof? And it's on my property?"

"He came to the house with a ladder? Did he have a truck?"

"No, he didn't have a truck. He told me that day he walked 20 blocks with the ladder."

I'm relieved. The guy doesn't seem very organized.

"He's what you call street slime. He doesn't think I recognize him. These type of people, that do this kind of shit, they think they're smarter than you are. But I'm facially very good with recognizing people."

I tell my mom to go make a police report and call me back. She does. My dad has come home and he's pissed.

"That man is no goddamn stranger to me. I used to do business with him."

My dad was a bookie for decades. He was a badass in his day. He's used to people asking him for money.

"You don't know that guy! Your father thinks he knows everybody. He walks up to live jasmin people in the grocery store and starts talking to them. They don't know who he is."

"You don't know what the fuck you're talking about, you damn fool."

My mom talks over him, laughing. "He's telling me I can move out tonight. Hey, who's gonna pay the mortgage? I'm not moving out of my house. It's a lot of nerve here, a person tells me to move out of my own house."

The door slams. My dad's locked himself in the bedroom.

"Your sister doesn't even tolerate him any more, except just to be nice. I don't blame her. She says, I don't know why you stayed with him. She's probably mad at me about it. She probably has a klupp about it."

My mom is the queen of made-up Yiddish. I haven't heard this one before.

"Ma, what's a klupp?"

"It's a, it's just a thing. It's like something that's bothering you."

I ask her for the police report number. The desk sergeant didn't give her one. She promises she'll call the precinct and ask for the beat cop tomorrow, make sure the report's been taken.

I tell her goodnight. For the rest of the night, there's a klupp in my throat.

I have a confession to make

The heshers pictured above don't actually feature that prominently in this post. But today I'm thinking about crystallization; they're called Crystal Blaze, and they look pretty awesome, so we'll roll with it.

Crystallization is a bad habit, but people seem to crave it -- everyone hates year-end lists, but loves haggling over their particulars. As such, I blew off my posting duties yesterday (sorry team; thanks Alex) to push off into a tempestuous sea of spreadsheets and iTunes playlists. I had to nail down what I thought were the fifty best songs and fifty best albums of 2006. In descending order. According to a sliding point-based scale. Suicide statistics tend to show a marked increase this time of year; this is usually attriubted to holiday depression, but I wonder how much of it could be accounted for by critics who lose the plot trying to weigh the relative merits of, say, Grizzly Bear and Clipse, as well as predicting how one's colleagues will rank them and trying to take this into account for ideal list placement and maximum point-efficiency, as well as wondering if there mustn't be some song out there so wonderful that it would make Clipse and Grizzly Bear sound uninspired, and imagining how one might track down this mythical song in an ocean of dreck, and musing on whether or not the local bean-counting factory offers dental, and having moral crises about slaving over lists while other people stage protests and volunteer at local soup kitchens, and, and, and, and....

With some years of list-making experience under by belt, however, I've gotten a lot better at not totally freaking out every December, and I have some helpful tips for list-makers and list-readers everywhere. It's not exactly voluteering at the soup-kitchen, but hopefully some small measure of good karma will accrue.

First, don't stress out about not having heard absolutely *everything*. In an age of cheap digital recording technology and massive music distribution networks, trying to keep tabs on every blog track and self-released EP is the quickest route to musical and critical burnout. You have to just listen to as much music as is humanly possible, accept that some things are going to evade your radar, and trust that your diligence will produce a worthy, if not definitive, list.

This segues directly into tip number two -- don't imagine that your list will be definitive. The top 20 slots will generally be pretty easy; they'll quickly fill out with albums and songs you unabashedly loved, and which you loved with enough nuance to eke out some sort of defensible hierarchy of worth. It's in the bottom 30 or so when things start to get murkier -- at this point, you're probably down to a bunch of albums and Chaturbate songs that you really really liked, but it's harder to distinguish which ones you liked better than others. At this point you have to put your intellect and intuition into overdrive and just do the best you can. It helps here to remember, again, that no list is definitive -- to make a list is to strive for something impossible; it has that beautiful futility, and there's no need for the end result to be perfect, as long as enough thought and work has gone into it to make a surface, comprised of inarguably interesting music, for people to test their own opinions and values against.

If all this fails and you're still trembling in fear at the prospect of making your list, there are several drastic but viable options still at your disposal: you might look at your colleague's preliminary lists and take the number one selection from each to make your own, or list all your favorite albums in alphabetical order, or ask your mother to rank them based on the appeal of their titles. The downside of this is that it'll probably get you fired; the upside is that you won't have to make lists any more. By the way, if my editors at Pitchfork happen to be reading, let me make it clear that I've been slaving over my list for weeks, and did not employ any of these dubious strategies. No. I just put a bunch of album names into a hat....

New scratchy demo production

"Shosholoza" is Peter Gabriel's proto-Biko. The simple structure, and scratchy demo production has me imagining Gabriel walking around in his bathrobe, popping a borrowed African cassette on the 4-track, and beginning to sing along, a little too loudly, in the way he always seems to sing along, the way one sings when you don't think anyone's around to hear you. But this great little song may in fact signal the birth of that signature sound: The WOMAD White Man's Wail.

In Zulu, 'Shosholoza' means to 'go forward' or 'make way for the next man.' A very colonizing sentiment. Peter Gabriel has often been accused of musical colonialism. And he's been called a vulture. I always find this thinking quite useless. For me these arguments represent some sort of isolationist crit-snobbery. And I expect that the last thing a black musician in South Africa in the early 80s needed was more isolation

If Bright Eyes can be grateful, anybody can. Today, Moistworks takes a break from cutting critical analysis *and* maudlin navel-gazing to wish everyone -- yes, even "waters" -- a happy four-day weekend with this quickie post. I'm sorry, but from what I understand it takes approximately 58 hours to cook a turkey and I have to get started. If you have time to kill while roasting your own bird, why not check out this terrific interview with Steve Reich on Pitchfork today? I love working for a website that has room for thoughtful interviews with experimental composers *and* videos of monkeys pissing in their own mouths. That review makes a lot more sense if you listen to Jet while you "read" it; similarly, you're encouraged to listen to the following composition as you read the Reich interview.

Nothing is cuter than a teddy bear right?

Well, more specifically, nothing is cuter than a teddy bear in the hands of a child. In a child's arms, Teddy is an ambassador of innocence. He signifies first friendships, security, imagination, sinlessness. He is centerfold of the greeting card industry, the muse for countless porcelain keepsake master-craftsmen. But take the child out of the picture, and the teddy bear becomes a symbol of something far more compelling, and far less cute.

A toy Teddy sitting unchaperoned in the corner suggests abandonment. If it's a weathered, crudely maintained Teddy, then you have neglect as well. Teddies arranged neatly on a teenager's bed may hint at an unexpexted suicide. Teddy by the side of the road is a drunk driving tragedy. A singed Teddy? Baby played with matches. Teddy smeared with mud, with one arm ripped off, intimates the shadowy perversions of molestation, infanticide or worse.

These bad touch bears are all over our cultural consciousness. Drug cartels stuff bears with heroin. A toy bear in the rubble of war is a booby-trapped land mine. In TV and film the teddy bear is a popular dark motif. From staple horror films, to Lost, to A.I., to (the psycho-sadistic revenge fantasy) Man On Fire. Google "child abuse and teddy bear" and, aside from joining me on a secret FBI list, you will readily find Teddy is the stock-art star of child endangerment sites like this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and this.

Even on the much more commonplace level, empty nesters, grandmas and misc. childless types traffic in a robust and melancholy trade of collectible eBay surrogates.

I would even say that in signifying bear terms, Teddy has had less success representing childhood that he has had representing the loss and corruption of childhood. Maybe this shift in meaning is the shift we make into adulthood. Maybe growing up isn't about leaving Teddy behind, but about his return as the stout herald of fear and violence.

Maybe that's a load. I have never personally thought about teddy bears at any time or in any context until the moment of this writing, when I am trying to come up with something to say about this odd song "Me And My Teddy Bear," a song that I find attractive but kind of repelling. I never had a teddy bear as a kid. Just a ragged blanket. My Australian-born mother, perhaps in some sort of protest against American cultural poison, only let us play with wooden blocks and Squatter until we were about 19. She has softened considerably with her grandchildren, spoiling them with stuffed magpies, wombats, and koalas. Although a koala, as any Australian will aggressively correct you, is NOT a bear.

The clever teddy bear art is snatched from Rockabye Baby! Records. Rockabye produces cribbed-out covers of bands like The Cure, Nirvana, Led Zep, Metallica etc... Their CDs were profiled in the New York Times this weekend. It seems like most articles in the Times these days concern the efforts of my generation, like every generation before it, to embarrass itself as it begins to breed. The Rockabye renditions are extremely-easy-listening: substituting melancholy vibes and xylophone where there were formerly screeching guitars, thumping drums, or, in Coldplay's case, melancholy vibes and xylophone. ("Clocks" maybe the only selection to sound manlier than its original.)

The choices are interesting: Led Zeppelin's "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You" makes the cut. Nirvana's abortion ode "Pennyroyal Tea" does not. Most creepy may be Pink Floyd's "Mother."

Getting an iPod

Way back when, I wrote about getting an iPod, a pink mini. Unlike then, I'm not embarrassed to tell you about this week's purchase, a shuffle. Have you seen this thing? It's basically the size of a breath strip. My three-year-old nephew thought it was a piece of chocolate; tried to unwrap it. Beyond the size, it's an odd thing, having to choose my 100 favorite songs. I was so cautious as I scrolled through my iTunes to fill it up, that by the time I got to the Zombies I still only had 48 songs on there. I left it that way and now have had the pleasure of walking around with only songs I really, really want to hear. These are a few of them.

The Adam Green track was brought to my attention by a French friend who had in on a Les Inrockuptibles compilation. We were sitting around one day and his nine-year-old daughter ran into the room, saying "Daddy, play that Jessica Simpson song!" I looked at my friend, aghast. How could he be corrupting his beautiful daughter with such garbage. Then he put on this song. His daughter knew every word, and giggled/sang all the way through.

Death Cab for Cutie: I originally heard them when they played on The OC and thought they were terrible (particularly in the context of SUCH a brilliant show). I promptly erased them from my consciousness, till recently when my brother mentioned this beautiful acoustic song of theirs. I found the song, found the video. (I just discovered YouTube. Hey, I never said I had my finger on the pulse.)

Oddly, part of the new obsession is with watching old James Taylor footage over and over again. This is the earliest I could find; it's from a BBC show in 1970, making him twenty-two years old. I've never seen JT looking so hot, so young, so nervous. The whistling, the insanely pretty girls in the audience. The sweater vest. At this point he'd fled New York for London in 1968 to try to quit drugs, failed (but managed to record his first record on Apple), returned the US, kicked in the hospital, and, by time of this footage was back in London and a massive success because of "Fire and Rain." The man worked fast.

And this Raincoats cover, well it's just ridiculous how good it is. I always wanted to love them, what with their gorgeous girly-late-seventies-British-ness, but this is the only song of theirs I've been able to get fully attached to. It's a bit all over the place, disorganized, unpredictable, but only in the messy, sexy way that the best girls can be. And the way Ana Da Silva nails the words "electric candlelight" makes Ray Davies sound like a folk singer.

Speaking of the word cover, let's talk about this. I had an argument with a friend about this recently: he took issue with me referring to Cat Power's version of "Sea of Love" as a cover. But it's on The Covers Record! I said. He insisted that it's a misnomer. We looked it up, and alas: A "cover" technically applies to the early usage of the word, which was in the early 20th century. When one record label would release a song and it would become popular, other labels would release the same song by a different artist in an attempt to capitalize on the song's success, either to "cover their bets" or even to cover the other LPs on the shelf in the store. The covers we know and love, as this one, should therefore more appropriately be referred to "versions" or "remakes." Hee ho hum.