One for Friday: Billy Bragg, “Sulk”


I adore those rare instance when a music discovery hits with an immediacy and clarity of a ringside bell. To my mind, there’s nothing more magical than when such a revelation happens in the midst of a crowd, basking in live music delivered by a skilled performer.

The first of many times that I saw Billy Bragg live, he was touring to support his 1991 album, Don’t Try This at Home. This excursion to stand before the Bard of Barking was of major importance to me. Workers Playtime was one of the albums I clung to like a religious artifact during my first couple years of college, especially during those forlorn stretches when I could best relate to its tales of romantic woe. And as I glowered through the president of George Bush the First, Bragg’s unapologetic, lefty protest songs provided the vocabulary for my (admittedly overdramatic) sense of political disenfranchisement.

Bragg did not disappoint that evening. Indeed, he’s always been a thrillingly entertaining performer every time I’ve seen him since. That first night, though, he managed to leave me joyously dumbstruck when he launched into a new song, then still unreleased. I don’t remember if he specifically introduced “Sulk” or if I simply knew this wasn’t yet available in his manageable but growing discography. It didn’t matter, I was immediately drawn in by its rampant cleverness, elegant melody, and cheeky charm.

I got roughly what I expected from that first Bragg show, and my expectations were high. For a few giddy minutes in the middle of the set, I got even more.

Listen or download –> Billy Bragg, “Sulk” (Live at Harbor Lights Pavilion, 1995)

(Disclaimer: I believe it may still be possible to but the studio version of “Sulk” on one of the various collections Bragg has signed off on over the years. I strongly recommend doing so, ideally in a manner that compensates both Bragg and the proprietor of your favorite local, independently-owned record store. There are also a whole slew of Bragg albums that belong in any collection, led by the previously mentioned Workers Playtime, but also including Talking with the Taxman About Poetry and Mermaid Avenue. This live version of “Sulk” is not from the performance I saw, but it’s a decent enough approximation for our purposes here today. It’s pulled from the website, which, by policy, only posts live recording from artists who are comfortable with their music being shared in that manner. Even so, I will gladly and promptly remove this music file from my little corner of the digital world if asked to do so by any individual or entity with due authority to make such a request.)

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The Consummate Compendium of the Inventions of Dr. Reed Richards

Yesterday’s wistful remembrance of The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe put me in mind of a long-lost feature ’round these here digital parts. So, for the first time in nearly seven years (!), we turn to the task of cataloging the many inventions in one of the great scientific minds (albeit a fictional one, but let’s not hold that against him).

I bring you the senses-shattering return of:


The inventions in this entry are utilized in Fantastic Four #61 (April 1967), by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby.

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ATOM IGNITER. This formidable, state-of-the-art weapon delivers a powerful ray, evidently through an acceleration of atoms that reaches a point that replicates setting them ablaze. Though some who’ve observed the device up close might be tempted to believe it is prone to faulty ignition with no prompting, Dr. Richards insists that can only occur if the device is manipulated by outside forces.

ff 61 2.jpg

REMOTE-CONTROL GRAVI-POLARIZERS. These small semi-circle devices, equipped with antennae so they can be operated remotely, affix to any figure and reverse gravity in order to lift it into the air. From there, it can rotate the figure with a tremendous centrifugal force. It is not advised as a tool to be used on living beings as it can reach extremely dangerous speeds.

ff 61 3.jpg

SPACE TIME CHAMBER. Richards initially chose to keep this invention top secret, undoubtedly because it harnessed enough power to level the entire city. The machine is also somewhat delicate, prone to unleashing its forces if overly jostled. When negative forces escapes the device, it does so as telltale glowing spectrum beams.


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My Misspent Youth: The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe

I read a lot of comic books as a kid. This series of posts is about the comics I read, and, occasionally, the comics that I should have read.

As I’ve acknowledged previous in this space, my quest for more, more, more of superhero comics when I was at the peak of my youthful obsession extended past the paneled adventures themselves. Any opportunity to read about the fantastically powered heroes and villains I’d committed to was highly welcome. I read material like that over and over again, hungrily pulling in as much information about the characters as I possibly could. Equally inhibited by time and access, there was no way I’d be able to read every Marvel comic book ever printed, but I could develop a facsimile of the encyclopedic knowledge I craved through whatever CliffsNotes-style recaps I could find. Empty calories, but at least I felt sated.

So when my publisher of choice announced a limited series entitled The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, it was as though it was made just for me. In an extension and expansion of the succinct biographies that ran in the back of issues of Contest of Champions, In Handbook, major characters were typically afforded an entirely page to share their histories and vital statistics, right down to detailing height and weight.

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I reveled in all this data, delighting in the knowledge that accumulated in my brain. I studied these pages more intently than any schoolbook I had at the time. The entire month between installments would be given over to scrutinizing the minutiae, imagining the stories referenced, and thinking about how everything lined up. A major allure of the Marvel stories was the direct promise that they were interconnected, all part of one tremendous saga. This was the serious-minded almanac of that saga, delivered one issue at a time.

As if the character profiles weren’t already satisfying my itchy curiosity, there was another facet of the Handbook that hit my spot so perfectly that it practically set my foot thumping like a supine Labrador who is the beneficiary of a perfectly deployed belly scratch. There were entire pages set aside to break down the gadgets, vehicles, buildings, landscapes, and other significant objects in the Marvel Universe. And the attention to detail was blissfully ridiculous.

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Nothing cemented to me that I’d fully given over to helpless comic book geekdom like the measureless time I spent hovering over a cutaway rendering of the Avengers Quinjet trying to determine where the vertical thrust deflector ducting sat in relation to the variable area afterburner nozzle.

After I’d read every word, I considered the implicit messages that could found in the production particulars of the series. The general prominence of the characters in the Marvel Universe could be sussed out by their placement and size on the wraparound covers, for example. Even the artist assigned to the drawing seemed to hold a clue, with fan favorite pencilers on major figures and handy bullpen toilers on the comparative super-powered scrubs.

handbook zzzax.jpg

There was also the nifty running appendix that dutifully presented the different alien races that popped up over the years, many of them for little more than a single issue. That’s how I learned “Vegans continually radiate anti-gravitons from areas of their brains contained within two horn-like projections on the front of their skulls in order to support their vast bulk.”

handbook vegans.jpg

I wasn’t the only one who fell for The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe. The series proved popular enough that it was extended a few issues to add deceased characters and yet more gadgets. And a second edition series followed around a year and a half after the completion of the first, immediately playing catch-up on all the new continuity wrinkles that had piled up. Eventually, they started circling back to the conceit with such regularity (not to mention indulging in odd offshoots) that I lost interest. The foundation remained, though. A sizable amount of schooling from that time might be gone, but still have a handle on the history of the Marvel Universe, at least up to that point.

Previous entries in this series (and there are a LOT of them) can be found by clicking on the “My Misspent Youth” tag.

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Now Playing: 13th


Of late, watching Ava DuVernay emerge as a powerful, uncompromising voice has been one of the great pleasures of observing the filmmaking landscape. As recently as four years ago, DuVernay was largely unknown, though she certainly had some prominent champions. Selma justifiably changed all that, especially after DuVernay and her film were largely ignored when the Academy Award nominations were doled out. In a happy irony, exclusion dramatically increased her prominence, helping to put her in high demand and making her one of the creators sought out for her insights when various discussions roiled around the industry. DuVernay may not have gotten an Oscar nomination, but she got a Barbie, dammit.

Given a platform, DuVernay is not going to squander it. Her new documentary, 13th, is a powerful explication and indictment of the institutionalized racism that persists in the United States, all under the auspices of offering a genial, ostensibly colorblind protection to the populace at large. The title refers to the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which abolished slavery. As the documentary notes, the specific language prohibited both “slavery” and “involuntary servitude,” but included the key caveat “except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted.”

In DuVernay’s reckoning (and in the assessment of many other scholars, most notably Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow), this exemption has been deployed like a poison for well over a century, artfully exploited to continually and viciously cast black citizens as irredeemable criminals. It’s a forced perception that drives reality, completed by laws constructed with awful artistry that disproportionately target those with a little more melanin to their skin (with the now notorious discrepancy between penalties for cocaine possession and crack possession as only the most prominent example of recent years). The primary thesis of 13th equates mass incarceration to slavery, but DuVernay’s overall point is even more general and pointed, arguing that systematic oppression is persistent, stealthy, and adaptable.

The evidence laid out by the film is dizzying and dismaying. DuVernay’s admirable inclination towards exhaustive examination can sometimes make 13th feel overstuffed, trapped by running time in skimming over the bleak history. There are stretches of the film that beg for the fiercely focused sprawl of Ezra Edelman’s O.J.: Made in America, which took advantage of its nearly eight hour running time to so relentlessly contextualize the social fractures that fed into the dueling public perceptions of the O.J. Simpson murder trial that it felt like reliving history in real time. It’s easy and enticing to imagine DuVernay spending a half-hour on D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation alone. If that makes 13th a little unwieldy at times, it also marks its dazzling ambition and strident commitment to powerful, uncomfortable truths. And it further establishes DuVernay as a uncommonly vital filmmaker.

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The Art of the Sell: “Toys” teaser trailer

These posts celebrate the movie trailers, movie posters, commercials, print ads, and other promotional material that stand as their own works of art. 

I worked at a five-screen movie theater through much of the first half of the nineteen-nineties. I eventually cajoled my way into responsibilities in the booth, taping together the feature prints that came in every week. That also gave me authority over the trailers that preceded those films. I can’t pull up specific stats, but I feel fairly confident that I attached the teaser trailer for Barry Levinson’s Toys at a ratio that exceeded all others. I certainly hope I had the sense to never let it be the first trailer in a cluster.

In retrospect, it’s mostly amazing that this method of promotion wasn’t employed more often when the not-so-secret weapon of Robin Williams was at hand.

Other entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Art of the Sell” tag.

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College Countdown: CMJ Top 250 Songs, 1979 – 1989, 133 – 131


133. They Might Be Giants, “Ana Ng”

According to John Linnell, “Ana Ng” has its foundation in his childhood memories. “There’s a cartoon I read as a kid in which a character shoots a gun through a globe to find out where the other side of the world is. So that was sort of the beginning,” he told MTV at the time. The comic in question was an installment of Walt Kelly’s great Pogo, and Churchy LaFemme was the pistol-wielding geographer. Further inspiration came from Linnell letting his fingers do the walking through a New York City phone book, noting there were multiple pages of people with the last name Ng. The vowel-free spelling of a name that was more common than he imagined in his limited cultural frame of reference inspired him to start dialing numbers to determine the correct pronunciation. Released, in 1988, as the lead single from They Might Be Giants’ sophomore album, Lincoln, the song was an extension of the bendy, quirky pop inventiveness the duo had already established as their sound, but the romantic pining built into the lyrics helped set it apart. Some fans consider it the one great love song in the catalog of They Might Be Giants. The guys in the band prefer to avoid such simple labels. “I’d say it’s more an endearing song about not being able to have someone who’s too far away,” Linnell said.



132. Hüsker Dü, “Makes No Sense At All”

Everyone knew “Makes No Sense At All” was a turning point song for Hüsker Dü, even the guy who wrote the song. In the biography of the band, written by Andrew Earles, writer Andy Nystrom recalled an encounter with Bob Mould shortly after the song hit in Minneapolis: “I remember telling Bob it was a great song, and maybe in kind of a cocky way, he said, ‘Yeah, that’s the one.'” Beyond the bristling, bold appeal of the song, it also represented Mould expanding his capabilities as an artist. “‘Makes No Sense at All’ sums up all the aspirations I had as a songwriter at that point in my life: ‘How do I continue mining this somewhat pessimistic outlook on life? How bright is the color of the ribbon that wraps this fabulous wrapping paper around this beautifully dark package? How far can I take this thing?'” said Mould. The track was selected as the first single from the band’s 1985 album Flip Your Wig. Though the band seemed fully poised for a breakthrough, “Makes No Sense At All” was also the only official single from the album, a choice necessitated by the fiscal limitations of the small label SST, which had been the band’s home through the first part of their career. That was about to change, however. Hüsker Dü was already signed to Warner Bros., and the major label was interested in releasing Flip Your Wig. The band instead decided the record would be their final bow with SST, which Mould later conceded may have hampered their career growth. “In hindsight, it may have been a misstep in terms of reaching a bigger audience, but at the time it seemed like the honorable thing to do,” Mould wrote in his memoir. “Like I said, we were the good soldiers.” The track was strong enough that it probably didn’t need an extra boost, but it undoubtedly got one from the song on the flip, a cover of “Love Is All Around,” from The Mary Tyler Moore Showa sitcom famously set in Hüsker Dü’s moshing grounds of Minneapolis. The charming, punked-up version of the song was even folded into the official music video for “Makes No Sense At All.” Years later, Mould could still reference the revamped TV theme song to help unlikely listeners understand the appeal of his former band in town.



131. Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers”

One of the final singles from Talking Heads, “(Nothing But) Flowers” stemmed from David Byrne’s ever-widening musical wanderlust. More specifically, it grew out of Byrne’s affection for Kanda Bongo Man, a Congolese musician. During the recording of the 1988 album Naked, Byrne claimed he started every day by dancing to Kanda Bongo Man’s “Belle Amie.” The track served as initiating inspiration for a studio jam that was eventually shaped into “(Nothing But) Flowers,” and Byrne took pride in the fact that African musicians assembled to pitch in on the album told him “it sounded like something from the old country.” There was yet another geographic region represented in the creation on the song: Manchester, which had so much to answer for. Johnny Marr, the guitarist from the Smiths, was recruited to play on several songs on Naked, and he was a full collaborator. According to Marr, the track was so dominated by its rhythmic elements when he initially encountered it that he had an uniquely difficult time finding his way to a complementary guitar part. “I listened to the track and for the first time I started to panic somewhat because I couldn’t imagine coming up with something,” said Marr. “I usually have a few ideas immediately. I asked them to play it again, and again, and again.” After a walk to clear his head, Marr realized a more robust contribution was required. “So I quite meekly asked for permission to put some chord changes in there,” he said. The amalgamation of styles and influences worked. While hardly a huge hit, “(Nothing But) Flowers” was the last Talking Heads song to make noticeable tremors on the charts.


As we go along, I’ll build a YouTube playlist of all the songs in the countdown. The hyperlinks associated with each numeric entry lead directly to the individual song on the playlist. All images nicked from Discogs.

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From the Archive: The Simpsons Movie


This weekend, The Simpsons airs its 600th episode. an achievement that’s downright mind-boggling. Currently on its twenty-eighth season, it’s the longest-running scripted primetime series in U.S. television history, outpacing Gunsmoke by eight years and counting. (The dramatic shift in typical episode orders over the years means Gunsmoke still aired about 35 more episodes than The Simpsons has thus far.) In commemoration of the new milestone, this is the review I wrote for the long-gestating film version of The Simpsons that arrived in theaters almost ten years ago.

Back in 1995, Time film reviewer Richard Corliss submitted his list of the top films of the year. Nestled in among the expected costume dramas, foreign films and arthouse fare was the Simpsons episode “Bart Sells His Soul.” It was a strange, silly, unexpected bit of rule-bending from a major critic, and, the more you thought about it, exactly right. The episode in question is The Simpsons at its best, artfully skewering religion with heretical glee while remaining slyly pious, and deconstructing the booming artificiality of American culture. It does so with sharp writing cemented in character, throwaway moments of pointed satire and even a Pablo Neruda reference (that remains one of my all-time favorite Simpsons lines). If Corliss was prepared to tout this animated half-hour as finer than hundreds of films, he could likely maker a stronger case than anyone arguing the contrary point.

So it’s not necessarily a slight to decide that The Simpsons Movie just feels like an extra-long episode of the tv series. Then again, we’re well removed from the heady heights of season seven. The show has long-sinced evolved away from being a regular dispenser of savage, shrewd commentary in densely perfect episodes. 400 episodes into a historic run with no clear endpoint, it is an institution, still smart and funny, but a victim of its own extraordinary accomplishments. Strong episodes come more rarely, and inevitably suffer in comparison with the nightly rerun reminders of former greatness.

The Simpsons movie is strong, funny, and a little unremarkable. The filmmakers are generous enough to make sure that fan favorites supporting characters get their moments to briefly shine (Ralph Wiggum afficiondos will likely rejoice at the quality and forgive the limited quantity of his screen time) and there may be a line or two that elbows its way into the remarkable pantheon of Simpsons quotables. The plot will likely recede into the blur of others involving unique new pets, Marge growing weary of Homer’s blundering selfishness, Lisa developing a crush, and aquatic environmentalism, but the truest measure of the effectiveness of any Simpsons episode these days is whether or not is it worth revisiting. The Movie succeeds in that regard.

This trip to Springfield (and beyond) is comforting and satisfying. It doesn’t matter that the film doesn’t immediately merit inclusion with the likes of “Krusty Gets Kancelled,” or “Rosebud” or “Lisa the Vegetarian or, yes indeed, “Bart Sells His Soul.” By this point The Simpsons has changed the very face of comedy more decisively than any contemporary purveyor (aside, perhaps, from David Letterman) and crafted a twenty year statement on American culture, norms, prejudices and aspirations, and that should be enough to allow the movie to be simply another entertaining chapter in that ongoing accomplishment.

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October 2016
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