Archive for Pop culture

Throwaway culture is here to stay

To be sure, the state of popular culture today is loathsome. Television, music, movies and books have become commodities, mere commercial goods intended to satisfy some momentary yen for instant gratification, only then to be tossed aside in pursuit of the next quick fix.

This should not surprise us. It is, at least to some extent, the very logical and probably inevitable result of the evolution of our distribution networks. In the time it takes to read this sentence, you could instantly listen to the new Rihanna song on Spotify, get the latest John Grisham pulp thriller on your Kindle, start watching the latest episode of “So You Think You Can Dance” on iTunes or cue up (or, more likely, queue up) any one of thousands of movies on Netflix instant streaming.

When we can almost instantaneously satisfy nearly any cultural craving with the press of a button or the click of a mouse, we are never left to want for something more substantial. To put it another way: When you can have dessert now, why bother with dinner?

That said, there seems to be a growing perception that disposable culture and its attendant pack of fame-whores are entirely new phenomena that sprang up virtually overnight, and this line of thinking — while seductively self-affirming — is wrong.

Not only did we have throwaway culture in the 20th century (anyone remember the Guilty Pleasures column in Film Comment in the late 1970s and early ’80s?), we had throwaway celebrities, too. In fact, we had them in droves.

Just before Y2K, I wrote an article (itself, ironically, a throwaway piece of journalism) for a local newspaper that was originally intended as arch commentary on the then-ubiquitous end-of-the-millennium listmania that had overtaken mainstream media. Looking back at it now offers plenty of reminders that all our celebrities were not brilliant performers, theoretical physicists or astronauts.

They were people like Rip Taylor and Jaye P. Morgan, who basically made their entire careers out of being game show panelists. (Game shows were to the 1970s as reality shows were to the naughts.) They were people like Charo, who was on “The Love Boat” 21 times. (Incidentally, Friday nights on ABC — “Love Boat” followed by “Fantasy Island” — were basically a cottage industry to prop up Hollywood has-beens and milk every last dime from their fading celebrity.) They were MTV veejays, and “Dance Fever” judges, and “Sweatin’ to the Oldies” VHS peddlers, and Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.

Look, I’m not saying popular culture in the 20th century wasn’t superior. But let’s at least try to argue for its eminence from a position we can defend with facts.

After all, when it comes to being famous for being famous, Zsa Zsa Gabor was a mother***in’ trailblazer.

I’m sticking with you

She was a poet and a painter and liked to say she had a posthumous crush on Buster Keaton.We met at the whiskey bar where I hang out when I have nothing better to do, which is most every night. I call it “my bar,” partly because other than work and possibly my apartment it’s the place I spend most of my time, but also because I literally claimed it in my divorce. I plopped down on a bar stool and ordered a glass of Four Roses Small Batch. She was sipping Pappy Van Winkle’s 20-year-old bourbon neat. She had a T.S. Eliot tattoo on her back. She was taller than me and wore the same glasses. She gave me the once-over twice. I gave her my hand.

It turned out we had friends in common. Dozens, in fact.

It also turned out that she lived in my building. Just down the hall.

Another round, bartender.

From there things unfolded slowly and inevitably but not without collateral damage. She’d been attached but unhappy and so she ended it, perhaps a bit hastily. It was messy.

And then, at least briefly, it wasn’t. We’d come home from work most nights and watch old movies, smoke cigarettes and drink wine. She’d throw together an extemporaneous charcuterie plate or make borscht for dinner, and we’d debate the merits of Luis Buñuel’s “Exterminating Angel” or laugh hysterically while reciting our favorite “Kids in the Hall” skits. Some nights we’d say to hell with sleep and pile into her green mid-’70s Dodge Challenger, roll over to our favorite seedy, late-night downtown bar and share a few cheap, stiff drinks with her husband.

Oh, right. She was married. But not married married. He was gay. He was also Ukrainian. He needed citizenship to be with the man he loved. Ever the iconoclast, always an outlaw, she was happy to help.

She often sang to me, mostly at night as we dozed off to sleep. She didn’t have a particularly good singing voice, but she didn’t care. More often than not, the song she chose was “I’m Sticking With You” by the Velvet Undergound. Moe Tucker didn’t have a particularly good singing voice either, so it worked.

I’m sticking with you
‘cos I’m made out of glue
Anything that you might do
I’m gonna do, too

She sang it to me, affectionately, like she meant it.

But she didn’t. Mean it, I mean. And deep down we both knew it. From the very beginning it was apparent our relationship had a shelf-life. Ultimately she wanted things I didn’t want. Like to be married married.

And then about six weeks after it began, it ended. Her ex came back. He vowed to change. He got down on one knee and offered her a ring. A week later she moved out and, as far as I know, they’re living happily ever after.

But I don’t really know for sure. They don’t stop by the whiskey bar much anymore, and neither do their friends. From our old group of “regulars,” I’m the last man standing. I suppose nothing lasts forever.

Just ask the Ukrainian.

On eMusic and et cetera

Today I logged into my eMusic account to discover that — for at least the third time since I became a user — their pricing structure is changing.

I haven’t really thought this out, and it’s probably a case of sour grapes, but I need to get some things off my chest.

Years ago when I first signed up for the MP3 service, I got unlimited downloads for $9.99 a month. Admittedly, that was a steal. But, then again, the number of high- or even mid-profile artists whose music was available on the site at that time was scant, especially for the mainstream listener.

Until last year, I got 40 downloads a month for $9.99, still a heck of a bargain.

And until recently, I was getting 30 downloads a month for $11.99, which, while a considerable downgrade from my previous plans, was at least a good deal compared to the outrageously priced alternatives such as iTunes.

Starting next month, it appears that they’re giving me what, on average, will amount to roughly 20 downloads per month for $11.99. It’s tough to say exactly, because the per-song price now varies, whereas before every song counted as one credit. But at best, I’ll get 28 songs, assuming all I care about are obscure outtakes from Third World vuvuzela bands.

OK, yeah. It’s still better than iTunes. As they helpfully point out in their explanation to users, “Under the new currency pricing system, eMusic members will enjoy savings of 20%-50% compared to iTunes’ a la carte prices.”

I suppose if that’s all eMusic wants to be, maybe they can turn it into a marketing slogan: “eMusic! Hey, it’s better than iTunes!”

Way to aim high, guys.

Listen, eMusic. I get it. You’re a business. You’re trying to make money. That’s fair.

And I’m sure the addition of the Universal Music Group catalog — which, ostensibly, is what prompted the change — will be swell. That’s a lot of music, some 250,000 tracks in all, many of which might even be worth hearing.

But aren’t we losing track of the larger point here?

This shouldn’t be about eMusic offering an alternative to iTunes and other Internet-based music retailers. It should be about digital distribution being an alternative to brick-and-mortar shops.

Ten or 15 years ago, I’d drive to my local store and shell out about $10 to $12 for a CD, which typically included 12-15 songs. That works out to about 75 cents per track. That price-tag covered the cost of recording, the artists’ royalties, the copyright fees, the marketing and promotional efforts and, of course, a hefty cut for the bloated music industry to line its pockets with.

But it also covered the cost of CD production, artwork and packaging, worldwide shipping and distribution, and a tidy little profit for the retailer itself. Those costs are no longer necessary.

And yet I’m still being asked to pay 70 to 80 cents per track? What gives?

I have my theories.

For example, a big part of it, probably, is that because digital downloads allow me to pick and choose the tracks I want, the labels can no longer force me to pay for the filler. After all, when you’re no longer able to charge for the chaff, you have to mark up the wheat.

(Of course, this model disrespects artists, who overwhelmingly continue to write, record and release songs as albums, presumably intended to be heard in their entirety, and arguably encourages throwaway culture by elevating the hit single above more “serious” works, but that’s a whole other discussion.)

Still, it’s hard to ignore the suspicion that it all boils down to something obscenely simple. Namely, that the major record labels simply aren’t willing to let go of the outrageous profit margins they grew accustomed to in the CD era.

And I guess that’s what bothers me most. At one time, eMusic wasn’t just an alternative to iTunes (which arguably started this whole mess by capitulating to label demands for higher prices). It was an alternative to the whole fat-and-happy, self-interested corporate culture of an increasingly soulless industry that cared about its consumers even less than it did about its artists. At least, it was a thorn in its side. At best, it was a catalyst for change.

Or at least I thought so.

So maybe the record industry won’t be brought to its knees today, or tomorrow, or maybe not the next day, either. But isn’t it inevitable? Isn’t the writing on the wall? The way I see it, you either evolve or you die, and for all the lip service the major labels give to change, they’re ultimately the same as they’ve always been: A wildly overgrown, woefully inefficient and largely unnecessary middleman.

Oh, and eMusic? It might be worth keeping something in mind. You’re a middleman, too.

Good luck with that.

Air travel sets a low bar for bars

When I’m here in my own city, making the best of my mundane workaday world, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m visiting a different city, be it for important work or a frivolous vacation, I sometimes go to bars. When I’m en route from one of those places to another, well … even then, I sometimes go to bars.

The latter mostly happens in airports. I rarely travel by car, bus, train, boat, rickshaw or jetpack. Rarely. In fact, in my admittedly limited experience, most train stations, bus stations, marinas, ports and late-model automobiles don’t even include bars, which should not be overlooked as one possible reason their popularity as alternative modes of long-distance transport consistently takes a back seat to air travel.

(It may be worth mentioning that I once got obscenely drunk on a ferry to Victoria, B.C., while playing Rummy and downing B-52’s with a high-school crush. I never slept with her, but when we got to the island we sat in vibrating massage chairs together, which — if you’ve ever tried it, I’m sure you’ll agree — is probably the next best thing. Even so, I would absolutely get drunk on a ferry again given the opportunity, so score one point for watercraft. Well played, boats.)

Incidentally, one of the nice things about airport bars is that the chances of “hooking up” are infinitesimal. Most people who belly up to an airport bar are just killing time until their flight boards. Sure, you might strike up a conversation with them, and you might even hit it off. But I’ve spent hundreds of hours sipping (or, in some cases, gulping) whiskey in various airport establishments around the world and I’ve never once heard one of those conversations end with the line, “So … your city or mine?”

Invariably, you’ll go your way and your fleeting friend will go theirs. As a result, despite the typically cheesy decor and generic names that reek desperately of some Midwest marketing focus group, airport bars are surprisingly unpretentious. Their barstools tend to fill up with people who genuinely appreciate a good beer or a fine cocktail and, at least in that sense, they often remind me of my favorite bars both at home and abroad. While trendy nightspots shower publicly in their immediacy, drawing mirror-kissing trendspotters with fruity novelty drinks, the humble airport bar — like any serious watering hole — knows what it’s there for. It’s not a dance club. It’s not a catwalk. It’s just a bar.

One of my few quibbles with airport bars is that they’re not open 24 hours, and nearly all are closed when you need them most — during that painful layover in the wee hours while waiting for the red-eye home. Here in my town, the airport bars close down between 9 and 11 p.m. and don’t re-open until 7 a.m. I do a lot of early-morning travel, and generally rely on a quick drink to supply the fortitude for tolerating my fellow passengers. As such, the minutes between 6:55 and 7:00 tend to take their sweet time passing by, allowing for the type of self-reflection that once prompted me to tweet, “The only thing more depressing than last call is first call.”

You take the bad with the good, though. The best airport bar I’ve ever visited was in the United Airlines first-class lounge in Beijing, China, which was a serve-yourself open bar that had recently been re-stocked with a fresh bottle of green-label Johnnie Walker and plenty of ice. I won’t lie: As I worked my way through the first half of its contents, I found myself for the first time in my life honestly hoping that my flight would be delayed. Sure, it was free Scotch Whisky — the good stuff, too — but my mindset then was more or less the same as it is in every airport bar: “Hey, I’m not driving.”

Comedian Greg Giraldo has a hilarious routine about getting drunk at the airport that includes the line, “Do you have any idea how wasted you have to be for someone to say, ‘Sir, you’re just too drunk to sit in a seat’?”

And that’s really the bottom line, isn’t it? Ultimately, air travel — for all its technological marvel and modern convenience — is excruciatingly dull at best. If everything goes perfectly — boarding is quick and efficient, departure is on-time, the pilot has a deft touch and your cabin mates are without exception polite and considerate — your day amounts to sitting quietly in a seat, doing absolutely nothing for hours on end.

Might as well have a nice buzz.

Top 5 concert experiences

Q: What are your 5 favorite concert/live music experiences? Yes, you only get 5.

 

A: In no particular order:

1. Geraldine Fibbers, Aug. 12, 1997, The Rubb, Tampa, Fla.: I’d never heard of them before, but a couple of friends who worked at the venue told me they’d get me in free so I showed up. Turns out, I was one of maybe 20 people who bothered to come out, so I ended up standing front and center at the foot of the stage in front of Carla Bozulich. Despite, or perhaps in spite of, the small turnout, the band played like the building was on fire. Nels Cline (now of Wilco) absolutely killed with versatile and virtuouso guitar work, and I have never before or since seen a singer pour as much energy and emotion into a performance as Bozulich did that night — five feet in front of me. When the chorus of “Dragon Lady” exploded, she might as well have pulled out a revolver and shot me between the eyes.

2. Fugazi, sometime in late 1990, Club Demo, Gainesville, Fla.: Ever the iconoclasts, Fugazi toured in front of albums rather than behind them. For this tour, they were working out a batch of new songs that would eventually become “Steady Diet of Nothing.” Club Demo was a short-lived shithole that crammed hundreds of sweaty people into a tiny room for only a few shows before disappearing like a mirage. It seems like a dream in retrospect, but for one glorious night the flagging ’80s hardcore scene was very much alive. The night of your life for just five bucks? Those were the days.

3. Yo La Tengo, Jan. 30, 1996, The Covered Dish, Gainesville, Fla.: From around 1995 to around 1997, YLT was hands-down my favorite band on the planet, mostly because of their live shows, which were invariably kick-ass affairs that veered thrillingly between the delicate beauty of an acoustic guitar alongside sweetly hushed boy-girl harmonies and the absurdly loud organ-drenched noise-fests led by Ira Kaplan’s brilliantly spastic guitar freakouts. (I’ve seen the band roughly 12-15 times, mostly during those years.) This particular show stands out, though, for two reasons. First, it was my birthday. And second, I had a crazy experience. During the song “I Heard You Looking,” I hallucinated that the music was a stream of light pouring out of me through my ears. About midway through, I swallowed and my ears popped, and I realized suddenly that the light wasn’t pouring out of my ears, it was pouring into them. Following the stream as it wrapped around the room, I mentally pinpointed the location of its source, and surprisingly it wasn’t coming from the stage — it was coming from about 15 feet behind me, slightly to my right. What the hell? So I followed it again with my eyes, turned around and saw that it appeared to be emanating from a woman’s face. The really weird part? I knew her. She was the only woman I’d ever loved, and I hadn’t seen her in three years. But there she was, and she was staring at me and I don’t know how to explain it, but … apparently I heard her looking.

4. Cat Power, March 1996, Liberty Lunch, Austin, Tex.: I was at SXSW with a Tampa band spending an amazing week soaking up all the great music at the festival. One night, I found myself standing in a sweaty mob, sipping on a Shiner Bock while waiting for Spoon and Guided By Voices to take the stage at the Matador Records showcase. This, of course, would require that I also sit (or, stand) through Liz Phair’s solo acoustic set and a litany of other up-and-coming acts I’d never heard of. Chavez wasn’t bad; Silkworm, not my cup of tea. (Good thing they had plenty of cold Shiner Bock.) That’s when an unassuming young girl slowly approached the microphone. She had short hair and an acoustic guitar. She was dressed like a boy, in blue jeans and a flannel shirt. She was trembling, and looked backstage repeatedly as if to plead, “Do I really have to do this?” Evidently, she did. This was Chan Marshall, aka Cat Power — and she was a mess. She tried to play, then stopped. She started to sing, then changed her mind. She mumbled. She fretted. She cried. The crowd, formerly raucous, fell silent. “Someone get this poor girl off stage,” we collectively thought. And then, in one glorious instant, everything came together. Marshall played “Nude as the News” — all the way through, without stopping, without missing a beat — and it was one of the most intense, most haunting and most powerful moments I’ve ever encountered in 25 years as a live-music freak. As she sang, “I’ve got the son (sun?) in me,” a spotlight flashed across my eyes and the full weight of the song hit me all at once. I felt like a voyeur, peering into this poor girl’s desperate life, and I was hooked. When her CD came out a few weeks later, I discovered she’d also recorded a cover of Peter Jeffries’ “Fate of the Human Carbine” and it seemed almost poetic to me. The chorus in that one goes, “Come and peek through a hole in the wall / Just to watch his heart undressing.” That’s exactly how seeing her perform felt. Her heart was laid bare on that stage — as nude as the news.

5. Sleater Kinney/White Stripes, sometime in 2000, Bowery Ballroom, New York, NY: “All Hands on the Bad One” was probably my least favorite S-K album, but it was around that time that the band was really hitting its stride as a live unit. This show was a knockout with Corin Tucker’s voice sounding powerful even by Corin Tucker’s standards, Carrie Brownstein confidently pulling off her best Pete Townshend windmill moves and Janet Weiss proving why she was the coolest chick in rock music since Kim Deal. Oh, and then there was this little unheard-of indie duo that opened the show and had the audacity to blow us all away. I was crushing hard on Meg White before I realized she was in the band, I met Cloe Sevigny at the bar, and I hung out with Lee Ranaldo from Sonic Youth. Surreal and awesome.

Of course I was wrong

It’s 1991 and I’m in college, living in Gainesville, studying behavior modification and barely scraping by because I’m too lazy to get a proper job. I eat ramen noodles for dinner at least five nights a week, I weigh 145 pounds, and I share a two-bedroom apartment with three other guys to cut costs. One is a guy I grew up playing soccer with, who built his own bong out of PVC pipe and spends most of his time getting high and watching the Weather Channel. One is a friend from high school who transfered to UF after visiting for a weekend and discovering how much time we spend getting shitfaced and trying to get laid. The third is a guy we met on campus who’s something like 6’8” and listens to Garth Brooks and earnestly asks us to start calling him “Cougar.”

On the rare occasions I find myself with a few dollars in my wallet, I indulge one of two appetites. Having subsisted for months on rations of ramen noodles, white rice and plain spaghetti, my first inclination is to spend it on food. This means going to an all-you-can-eat pizza place across the street from campus. It’s called Lord Munchees, but we’ve nicknamed it The Lonely Guy Buffet, because the only people who ever eat there are hard-luck Y-chromosome sad-sacks like ourselves. The pizza is barely edible, but it fits our budget.

The other option is music. The World Wide Web is still in development and Napster is eight years in the future, so the only reliable way to get your hands on new music is to trade cassettes with your friends (a strategy which, unfortunately, requires having friends) or buying it yourself at a real-life brick-and-mortar store.

Gainesville, being a college town, has a number of such outlets, including three that sit within a single square block of each other: Schoolkids, Hyde and Zeke, and Bobaloo’s. The latter is a run-down shack next to the post office filled with used vinyl and stinking of mildew. Hyde and Zeke is a small but well-stocked shop that leans heavily toward “alternative” and college rock (Nirvana’s big bang is still months away, so for now this means bands like the Pixies, Jesus & Mary Chain and the Violent Femmes) along with a heavy dose of your edgier mainstream stuff (I remember buying the David Bowie re-issues at Hyde and Zeke a year earlier).

Our favorite, though, is Schoolkids. Mainly because it’s bigger and has a wider selection. But also because it carries a lot of obscure indie and hardcore records, heavily supports local bands and — perhaps most importantly — because the employees are all punker-than-thou slackers who can barely be bothered to sniff at the CDs you choose to purchase, let alone ring them up. As indifferent and/or downright contemptuous as they are, every once in a long while when you bring your bounty to the counter and sheepishly reveal it, one of the clerks will perk up and say, “Oh, dude, you’re gonna love that Slint CD, it’s so rad.” (Except they won’t say “dude,” because even in 1991 that shit is openly mocked.) As fucked up as it sounds, to a shy, insecure, music-loving kid, there is no greater validation.

And but so anyway, on one of these trips to Schoolkids, I’m using my hands to iron out a wad of wrinkled up singles while this hipster named Miles rings up my brand new copy of Fugazi’s “Steady Diet of Nothing,” when I notice a box full of promotional cassettes — cassingles, they call them — sitting on the counter. I pick one up and study it. “This any good?” I ask, and Miles says, “Dunno. Some new band. Comes out next month, I think.” So I figure what the hell, and throw the cassingle in the bag as Miles hands it to me.

____________

One of the inevitable things about cramming four young, testosterone-fueled guys into a small apartment is the fighting. It’s constant. Someone has always had a bad day. Someone always wants to watch one TV program while you’re watching another. Someone always just got dumped by a girl. Someone always drank the last beer. Someone always left their dirty dishes in the sink, or their dirty laundry on your desk chair, or their pubes on the soap.

So you fight. You call each other names. You call each other’s mothers names. You want to start throwing punches, but you don’t, because you can’t, because you’re adults now, and you’re sophisticated college types, and you still have to live together, and rent’s due next week. And plus you’re wimps and you’re afraid of physical pain. You’ve never even been in a real fight, after all. What if the other guy kicks your ass?

So fisticuffs are out. Instead, of course, you resort to passive-aggressive guerrilla tactics.

___________

One night, I’m lying on the couch with Bong Guy watching the NASA channel, which is showing a satellite view of Earth from so far away that you can barely tell it’s Earth, and which also has such an impressive depth of field that you feel like you can see into infinity.

Or maybe that’s just the weed talking. But either way, we’re sitting there, chilling out, enjoying a quiet night at home, when our roommate — The Transfer — appears at the front door. He’s not alone, he’s with his girlfriend, who we don’t particularly like. She strikes us as pretentious, and not just because she insists that we call her Cynthia rather than Cindy.

They sit down and start telling us about their evening — they went to dinner, and they saw a movie, they ran into our friends Greg and Wendy at the mall and all sorts of other day-in-the-life minutiae that seems excruciatingly dull and impossibly annoying when you’re baked out of your mind and trying to stare into infinity through a TV screen.

Eventually, Cynthia picks up the remote control and says, “You guys aren’t watching this, are you?” And before she even finishes saying the words, she’s changing the channel to “The Golden Girls.” Seriously?! “The Golden Girls”?! (And, by the way, a word to the wise: When you’ve done more bong rips than you can count, do not under any circumstances allow yourself to be trapped in a situation where you might possibly be exposed to the sight of 60-year-old Rue McClanahan making single-entendres as she leers at young men. I couldn’t get an erection for like three weeks.)

And I do mean trapped, because first of all, this is our home. And second of all, we’re so goddamn stoned we can’t even tell where we end and the couch begins, so separating ourselves from it and leaving the room is about as likely as Cynthia joining us for dinner at The Lonely Guy Buffet.

After an hour of this shit — they aired back-to-back episodes, for cripes’ sake — Cynthia stands up and says, “OK, I’ll see you boys tomorrow,” and walks with her nose in the air toward the bedroom The Transfer shares with “Cougar.” The Transfer looks at us apologetically and follows, closing the door behind him.

Bong Guy and I glance at each other as he mouths the words, “What the fuck?!” I breathe a comically deep sigh of relief, and reach for the remote control. In seconds, the soothing strains of the Weather Channel wash over us and we’re back in our happy place. This Doppler Radar is fucking beautiful, maaaan.

And then we hear it.

Bong Guy slouches visibly and stares up at the ceiling as if appealing to god himself. “Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I say.

The Transfer and Cynthia are fucking. They’re not just fucking — they’re fucking up our high.

Bong Guy points to the remote control in my hand. “Crank up the volume,” he says, suddenly excited. I hear him but I don’t move. “No, wait,” I say. “I have a better idea.”

I peel myself off the couch and go into the bedroom I share with Bong Guy and dig around in the closet until I emerge with my prize. It’s the cassingle from a few months before. When I brought it home that night, we all listened to it together and within the first minute of the song, we agreed it was the biggest, most steaming pile of fecal waste we’d ever befouled our ears with.

The song was “Two Princes” by the Spin Doctors.

I walk back into the living room and stare at Bong Guy with a self-satisfied smirk on my face and I hold up the cassette. He recognizes it immediately and begins to laugh.

I slide it into the cassette player, crank the volume all the way up, and press play.

Then Bong Guy and I walk together into our bedroom and shut the door. About three minutes later, the music stops abruptly and a few seconds later someone rattles our doorknob, which we’ve locked. “You guys are fucking assholes!” we hear The Transfer yell. And without ever saying a word to one another, Bong Guy and I lie in the dark in our beds and giggle for what seems like hours.

And as I drift off to sleep, I wonder if I’ll miss all this one day when I have a place of my own.

No way, I think. No fucking way.

Rubbing some dirt on it

The sound of my own voice reverberates in my head as I catch my balance, startled as I am by the desperation of the primal bark that just involuntarily escaped through my lips from somewhere deep inside. I pause for a moment to collect myself, then lean slowly down to rub the spot on my shin where tomorrow I’ll sport a nasty bruise. I press gently but firmly with my thumbs and wince as the pain shoots through my leg, and I can tell right away it’s going to be a bad one. It feels awful, but then it feels good to feel anything at all.

I’m playing soccer on a crisp January afternoon, while a sinking sun reflects off the glass skyscrapers looming just across the river as if it’s checking itself in the mirror before calling it a day. I’ve just been relieved of the ball while trying to make a move I’ve made a thousand times before, one that used to work every time but has seen a dwindling success rate in recent months. I shake my head and start slowly back in the opposite direction.

It’s not that I’m slower, I think. It’s that I’m less quick. Somehow, at this moment, at least in my mind, there is a difference.

There is also a metaphor.

I am a grown man, playing against kids in a kids’ game. The only other player my age, who’s lagging behind the action along with me, glances over and catches the grimace on my face. He nods, knowingly. “It’s tough,” he says, and I muster a small laugh of acknowledgment.

“At our age, you get going in one direction and it’s hard to change.”

He’s right, of course. He’s talking about soccer, but I’m thinking about life.

Either way, though. He’s right.

__________

I’m leaning on a bar sipping a Jack ‘n’ Coke, taking long, deliberate drags from a Marlboro Light and staring intently at the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.

She’s a new hire at the office, and somehow, inexplicably, she’s agreed to meet me for a drink — in the middle of the night, no less — at a dive halfway between our apartments that any sane person would be afraid to enter.

“It only gets faster,” I tell her. I’m talking about time, of course, because she has mentioned that the previous year seemed to fly by for her.

She’s seven years my junior, and I can tell by the look on her face when I talk — or shout, rather, over the blaring redneck music and bleeping electronic dart boards — that she’s only ever dated boys, not men.

“It seems like it’s building up momentum, but really it’s all about perception,” I say, and it becomes immediately clear that she’s intrigued — if not by me, at least by the idea of being on a date with someone who discusses things like perception and the concept of time.

“Think about it,” I continue. “When you’re three years old, one year is a third of your entire life experience. In relative terms, it seems huge.”

“But when you’re 30 … a year is nothing,” I go on. “It’s merely one-thirtieth of everything you know. Barely over three percent of your lifetime.”

She smiles and looks deeply into my eyes and I know with as much certainty as I’ve ever known anything that the hook has been set.

Eight years, three apartments, one house, three cats, two jobs, a dozen trips, a million laughs, a hundred thousand tears and a blink of an eye later, I hand her a check for $20,000 and she drives away.

Forever.

Breaking news: ‘GTA IV’ not perfect

No doubt about it: “Grand Theft Auto IV” is a really fun game. Over the past week, we’ve spent nearly every waking hour (except the ones when we’re chained to our desks) guiding Niko Bellic around Liberty City, from the slums of Firefly Island to the uber-posh urban lofts of Algonquin. And thanks to the game’s sprawling ripe-for-exploration cityscape and fun multiplayer modes, there’s a good chance we’ll be playing it for a long time to come.

But that won’t keep us from nitpicking. The game has its share of flaws, and your friendly neighborhood Couch Potatoes—having trained their whole lives to find the cloud in every silver lining—feel it’s necessary to mention a couple of them in the interest of being “fair and balanced.”

Game Design: One of the most frustrating aspects of “GTA IV” emerges the first time you fail a mission. The game’s early missions are easy enough that it doesn’t happen for a while. But once it does, prepare to be annoyed.

Here’s an example: In the mission “Hostile Negotiation,” Niko’s cousin Roman is kidnapped by Russian mobsters. You get a frantic call from Roman’s girlfriend, at which point you have to drive across town to the warehouse where Roman’s being held. (Alternately, you can take a cab and sit through the ride or endure the load time if you skip it.) Of course it’s a trap—they’re expecting you—so once you get inside the warehouse there are dozens of armed thugs waiting to kill you. As Niko, you have to slowly and methodically work your way up to the fourth floor, staying in cover and picking off enemy after enemy until you finally reach the room where Roman’s being held. After a brief cut scene, you have to take out a guy who’s holding Roman at gunpoint while using him as a human shield. So you aim and fire and—voila!—Roman is saved. But guess what? The mission isn’t over. You have to take Roman back home.

So you follow Roman back downstairs and, hey, there’s a truck right outside in the yard behind the warehouse. Sweet! You hop in the truck and start driving. And then … BOOM!

It turns out there are mines or something combustible hidden in the overgrown yard behind the warehouse. The truck explodes, killing you and rendering the mission a failure. You have to start over at the beginning—on the other side of town—and work your way through the whole thing again … just so you can perform the seemingly simple task of driving Roman home.

This scenario happened to both Stephen and me. And I’ve had at least two or three other similar mission “failures” that were equally frustrating.

I’m sorry, but there are only two possible explanations here: Either (1) the explosion was a fluke that Rockstar didn’t anticipate, or (2) Rockstar planned that little booby trap. In the former case, that’s bad game design—the mission should’ve been successful as soon as Roman’s captor was shot. In the latter, that’s just evil.

Thankfully, we’re not alone on this.

But we also have to acknowledge this: “GTA IV” is also not alone. Off the top of my head I can think of countless games that made we want to shatter the TV screen with my controller for the very same reason. Most recently, it was the interminable three-stage final boss battle in “Dark Sector,” which required no small amount of sheer dumb luck to defeat. I had to fight him no fewer than eight times before I won by doing the exact same thing I’d been doing since my first try.

So it’s not just “GTA IV.” That’s how video games work. And that’s … kind of sad, actually.

Many hardcore gamers will argue that this kind of gameplay is simply “challenging” and that it gives the player a great sense of accomplishment when they finally succeed. I not-so-humbly disagree. That’s not a sense of accomplishment you’re feeling. It’s a sense of relief.

Maybe it’s just me, but when I complete a game, I don’t want my last thoughts about it to be, “Thank god I never have to do that again.”

Main Character: In my review of “GTA IV,” I said Niko Bellic “may be the most finely nuanced character the game industry has ever produced.” In ensuing conversations, Stephen disagreed, and I have to admit he made some pretty solid points. He argued that Niko only has two modes (detatched, aloof smart-##### and cold-blooded killer) and noted that “the motives the developers give Niko are as shallow as [any other video game protagonist]. ‘He’s got a past and he wants revenge. Oh, and money.’”

True. True.

But I still think Niko is a big step up from the Marcus Fenixes of the gaming world—those one-dimensional, testosterone-fueled cartoon characters who owe more to Arnold Schwarzenegger in “Predator” than to Ray Liotta in “Goodfellas.” Hell, when you think about most game characters, it’s tough to even remember their names, let alone the details of their personal lives. What can you tell me about “Soap” MacTavish? Or Logan Keller? I mean, just because there’s a picture of a baby in Gordon Freeman‘s locker, does that make him more human?

By those admittedly pitiful standards, Niko Bellic is a richly drawn character.

But if you compare him to, say, Humbert Humbert or Hannibal Lecter, he’s barely a sketch.

Again, that’s not necessarily “GTA’s” fault. It points to a weakness in the industry.

Part of the problem is that game developers often intentionally create the most generic character possible. Theoretically, that way anyone who happens to play the game can project their own personalities onto an everyman avatar instead of being force-fed one they may not like or relate to.

OK, great. But does it have to be that way? Probably not. Hollywood gives us countless protagonists with strong personalities, and even when we can’t necessarily see ourselves hanging out and having a beer with the character, we can almost always relate to their fundamental humanity—assuming there’s a decent actor in the role.

So, as Stephen asked, why can’t game characters’ personalities be as customizable as their faces or wardrobes? Sure, it would require a whole new technology, probably. And, yeah, it would change the game and probably make the story different for each and every player. But that’s a good thing, right?

Video games have come a long way in the last 10 years—and one look at the top-down 2-D graphics of the original 1998 “Grand Theft Auto” is all the proof you need—but there’s still a long way to go. If Rockstar isn’t prepared to put its $500 million toward taking the next giant leap, let’s hope another game developer is.

In the meantime, “GTA IV” will suffice. Quite nicely, in fact.

Give me liberty; give me ‘Manhunt 2′

I drove my first tank at age 7, using it to blow up my sister. By age 9, I’d killed hundreds upon hundreds of aliens. The following year, I slayed my first dragon. And soon, I was a veteran of countless fist fights.

Of course, none of this happened in reality. It happened on my parents’ TV screen. I was born at just the right time to be among the vanguard of the world’s first generation to grow up with video games.

From the time my father brought home a PONG console when I was six years old, I started playing video games almost every day. I still do. By a conservative estimate, I’ve probably logged somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 hours playing games.

And yet, despite the fact that roughly 75 percent of all video games contain violent content, I have never hit, stabbed, shot, run over, ignited or otherwise maimed another human being.

To hear some people tell it, that would seem improbable if not impossible.

Take the British, Irish, Swiss and Italian governments, for instance. This week, all four countries banned the release of the upcoming Rockstar video game “Manhunt 2,” claiming that it encourages violence and murder.

Thank goodness I live in America, where I’m allowed to make my own decisions about what sort of entertainment I bring into my home. Well, sort of.

As it turns out, there are loads of people even here in the “land of the free” who are conspiring to keep “Manhunt 2” out of my hands.

First, there are the retailers. Because the ESRB justifiably applied an “adults only” rating to “Manhunt 2,” stores such as Best Buy, Target and (of course) Wal-Mart won’t carry the game.

Next there’s Sony and Nintendo, the makers of the PlayStation 2 and Wii consoles for which the game was developed, who have established policies against “adults only”-rated content being released for their systems. Can you imagine if Sony sold you a DVD player but would only let you watch certain movies on it?

And don’t forget about the government. To my knowledge, no U.S. politicians have yet weighed in on the issue. But they will. They always do. Remember the last time Rockstar got in trouble?  It’s only a matter of time.

Finally, there’s Rockstar itself. In response to the uproar, the company has cancelled the game’s planned July 10 release. Perhaps temporarily, but for now there’s serious reason to doubt that “Manhunt 2” will ever hit the market here or anywhere else.

And that’s a shame. No matter how sadistic or gruesome they might be, video games are the creative expression of artists working with a non-traditional medium. They deserve to be seen and played — not banished to a developer’s hard drive by some self-righteous arbiter of decency who thinks you aren’t intelligent, competent or responsible enough to do what’s in your own best interest.

If “Manhunt 2” never sees the light of day, score one for the power-hungry politicians, greedy trial lawyers and meddling busybodies who want to absolve you of personal responsibility for your own behavior. You can already smoke cigarettes for decades and then sue a tobacco company when you get sick, and you can already eat burgers and fries for every meal and then sue McDonald’s when you get fat. Hell, you can even get drunk and crash your car into a tow truck while talking on your cell phone and not wearing a seat belt … and then sue the tow truck company!

Soon, it appears, you’ll be able to go on a murderous rampage and get off scot-free. “It wasn’t my fault — the video game made me do it.”

Garbage.

New music from an old favorite

QuasiOne of the great post-R.E.M. albums to see heavy rotation on late-‘80s college radio was the eponymous debut by a San Francisco band called the Donner Party. Gloriously raw guitar-driven sound and sweet boy-girl harmonies aside, the band wouldn’t have been a blip on the radar without the stellar songwriting of leader Sam Coomes. His tunes managed to be chock full of hooks without resorting to predictability, and his dour but clever lyrics (“Oh, let me recline in my chair in the corner / No one in heaven or earth is forlorner”) prefigured the cynical ‘90s without giving in to its whiny, insufferable petulance.

Then the Donner Party dropped off the face of the planet. Poof.

Years later, I discovered a Portland, Ore., roxichord-and-drums duo called Quasi after reading about their album “R&B Transmogrification” in an indie music mag. I bought the disc and dropped it in the player without looking at the liner notes, and before the first track was over I knew I’d found the missing Mr. Coomes. Sure, the tunes are now mostly drenched in hyperactive blasts of organ instead of messy guitar, but the quirky pop smarts and bittersweet lyrical bent are unmistakable.

Both the grittier, “R&B” and the epic follow-up, 1998’s “Featuring Birds,” were pure pop genius from start to finish. Three discs since have been somewhat more hit-or-miss, but they’ve all featured moments of brilliance from both Coomes and his drummer/ex-wife Janet Weiss (of Sleater-Kinney fame).

A new album, “When the Going Gets Dark,” is due out in late March on Touch & Go. If “The Rhino” is any indication, this record is going to be much looser and less angular. If that signals a return to the sinuous shizophrenia of “R&B,” I’ll be a happy man.

A tune from the new Quasi disc, courtesy of Touch & Go:

Quasi: “The Rhino” from “When the Going Gets Dark” [mp3]