APRIL 1999 Part 2
They want me to recycle? Okay: here you go, boys. ELEVEN bags tonight. Plus a stack of flattened cardboard. Two weeks’ worth of three newspapers! Clanking yeasty beer bottles, translucent plastic milk jugs like stiff empty pupae cases. Crimped cans, nude tin. All yours.

I dare them to cite me for excessive recycling material. I just dare them.

Damnedest thing: I was downtown today and ran into Tom the Tailor, a Dinkytown denizen from the old days. He was going to contest a parking ticket. We shot the breeze about events current and old, and traded the whereabouts of fellow Dinkytownians circa 78-83. While we had a common nexus - the storied Valli - we had different social groups. These groups nevertheless bled together, because we all shared the same dim brown world of the Valli. We parted, and I walked away thinking of other Valli regulars I hadn’t thought of in a while. Not the Giant Swede, of course; I see him all the time. Not Dridj the Crazy Uke; he’s married to the Giant Swede’s wife’s sister. Not Sam - saw him on New Year’s Eve. Not Wes - talked to him the other day; channel 2 is airing his marvelous documentary on junkyards on April 18th. Lisa? Probably run in to her downtown. Tom said he’d been offered Twins tickets by Lisa’s ex-husband.) The other Mike? He was the taxi driver who took us to the airport last year. Big Mohammed? Waited on me at the Pickled Parrot. Little Mo? Saw him last time I ate at Atlas.
Mind you, we’re talking a loose assemblage of people from 20 years ago. To this day downtown I see regulars from the Valli. We all still move in intersecting orbits.
I thought of one fellow who I hadn’t seen since my wedding in 89, but I knew he was still alive; he’d sent e-mail last year. Rick, the Voice, the DJ, the guy with whom I used to talk about Radio, the pinball genius, nervy wiry knife-eyed Rick. Wonder where he was now.

Well, you know what’s coming.
I was standing outside the Star-Tribune, thinking about the column; a city bus roared past, and someone shouted out the window: JAMES LILEKS. Hmm. I trotted after the bus, caught up with it at the stop and peered in to see who called my name.

I saw Rick.

He was driving the bus. A grin, a salute, a few shouted words.
I’m still stunned. It’s spooky. It’s just too damn spooky.

Spent the hours after sunset working on the not-at-all-awaited Fargo site, realizing several things;
1. Nothing ever changes. I tinted an old grainy photo, and the result was blobby and cheap. Oddly enough, this made it look authentic, since the tinted postcards of the day look blobby and amateurish as well. So I’m using a machine they could never have imagined in 1911 to make a postcard look exactly like it did in 1911.
Or could they have imagined it then? Did they? Surely the idea of the computer, or in this case of Photoshop, the Artistic Calculating Engine, must have occurred to someone before Turing. Someone must have looked at Morse Code transmitters and thought: one day we will use this to send pictures. One day people will use this binary code to send pictures to others. Saucy pictures. Spicy pictures! Pictures of women showing their ankles.
2. No one cares about this site. This domain consists of sites with diminishing levels of appeal - I mean, I don’t expect anyone who hasn’t been to Cozumel to care about the Cozumel pages, and people who have little interest in architecture or architectural history don’t give a fig for the Mpls section. That’s fine. Today’s Yahoo listed a site devoted to Whipping Scenes in Movies. It will get more traffic than I ever will. Narrowcasting is the web’s strength, and that’s why I throw these slivers out on the heaving seas; I know someone will be happy to discover them, just as I’m happy when I discover an extremely narrow site that fits my interests. Such as Female Armpit Shaving Scenes in 19th Century Flipbooks.
Just kidding. Do not request the URL. Please.
If most website builders stopped and asked themselves: who cares? then the web would be a ghost town. So I press on, confident that someone will stumble across the site and drink it in. It has, however, become much more than intended - history, autobiography, cultural anthropology. Right now while I write I am scanning a thick souvenir book for the 1950 Fargo Jubilee. It’s a great cultural artifact - the photos, the typography, the text are all from another world. The Penney’s ad, for example, goes like this:
Penney’s: looking backwards and honoring a glorious Past! Looking forward and anticipating an even greater Future! Growing with FARGO!

I mean, that’s practically SOVIET, for God’s sake. Or Klingon. No one could use the phrase “glorious past” without drenching it in irony. And no one believed it then; I mean, everyone knew it was an ad, and that Penney’s wanted you to come in and buy underwear. But the lies were simpler then. More honest. If you know what I mean.
If so, tell me, because I don’t.

3. This is it. The Fargo site, planned for two years (doesn’t that make it sound grand) is the last of the projects I’ve had in mind since I set up this domain. After this, I’ve said all I have to say.

Unless I do something on Dinkytown . . .

Alfred, prepare the scanner.

Everything I read in the media today consisted of observations about the media. I read an issue of Pulse! magazine, a local free weekly; it's an amusing journal, because it is, week in and week out, a masterpiece of hazy reasoning and bad writing. (I only pick it up for the cartoon by Chris Monroe, a Minnesota illustrator who has a a wicked wit and a tremulous, spindly drawing style.) The entire issue of Pulse! concerned TV, and the Pernicious Effect Of. According to the lead piece, we are all dupes and morons, uncritical buffoons who gape at the idiot box to assuage our own blurry empty souls, incapable of distinguishing between TV reality and actual real reality. This was a novel concept in, oh, 1952.

Pick up the New Yorker, read a review of a new play by Christopher Durang; it's about - surprise! - the deleterious effect of tabloid TV on the national soul. Real au courant stuff - why, it has Menendez Brothers references. The point of the play seemed to be that we're all groundlings huffing hardy-har-har as we dance in the bilge-stream that flows from the rotten mouth of popular culture. Mind you, the reviewer isn't that sort of person, and the people who read the review aren't that kind of people, and the audience that attends the play CERTAINLY aren't that kind of people, but they are sure there are people like that out there somewhere.

Finally, I was flipping through Newsweek, which still shows up unwanted and unbidden at Lileks Manor, and I read a piece about a new piece-o-crap animated show called "Family Guy." I can tell from the previews that this show bites, and bites large, and will tumble down the capacious chute of cancellation within a year. The Newsweek article - more of a preview than a review - declared the evil baby Stewie "the next breakout character of the season." Well, sez you, buddy. Just watch as I remain firmly unmoved by Stewie.

Just watch as I not watch Futurama, which was also touted in the piece. I finally saw an episode, the second aired. It was awful. Maybe two semi-grins through the whole thing. It was a bad Simpsons episode performed entirely by understudies.

Met Dad & Dave, the brother-in-law, at Midwest Petroleum Jobbers Convention. It's always the first sign of spring, always at the same place, always across the street from the Howard Johnson where we stayed on my first visit to Minneapolis in the early 60s. I'm probably here today because of that trip; we went to Southdale, which was a flabbergasting marvel to a NoDak kid. Even Hojo was exotic; anything we didn't have in Fargo was exotic, no matter how ordinary it was to the rest of the world. I got a stuffed dog that played "Some Enchanted Evening" when you wound his key, and a Jungle Gym, which sits today wrapped in vines in the backyard in Fargo. The dog is in a drawer in my old room. I'm here now, and Dad comes to the convention every spring, and you can usually see the old Hojo from his room.

We met in the lobby, went up to the big buffet. Beef! BEEF! Over beef sandwiches we discussed the station, and Dave told me of the plans & conjectures he has for RJ's Conoco. (Given the competitive nature of the West Fargo market, I am not at liberty to discuss them.) Then we went to the conventional hall to see the machinery and franchises and geegaws available to Today's Gas Station Operator. Wonderful stuff. A few years ago, before the new station was built, we looked at pumps, and I learned much from listening to the industry reps. Today we looked at Mobil's new Mobilpass pump, just for amusement; the station has no intention of switching to Mobil. But they have this nifty system whereby you wave your keychain at the pump, and it reads a chip in your keychain, transmits the information to a computer, and bills your credit card. When you wave the keychain, the classic Mobil Pegasus lights up: extremely cool.

In the old days, it was all cash; in the old days, Texaco supplied a machine for making credit card imprints, and I used to play with its sliding levers. The carbon receipts had a peculiar character, like sullen gloomy brothers of mimeo sheets. Every transaction had a two-part conclusion - the definitive chunk-SHUNK of the imprint machine, and the thin personal scratch of the purchaser's signature. Now you wave and fill and go. It's better, easier; hell, I prefer to use my debit card at the pump, saving myself a trek into the station.

But . . . no, no but. It's a small psychological blow against isolation and loneliness. Really. You're in the middle of nowhere; you need gas; you're unhappy and alone, forsaken and forgotten. You pull up to a 1960s pump in a grimy station, listen to it chime and clank and gurgle out your gas. You pay and go, and as the station recedes in your rear-view mirror, it becomes another metaphor for another empty necessity, a rote empty gesture. Why, the five-dollar bill you left behind already smells more like the oil-fingered man who took it than it does of you.

No more! Wave the wand, and the air erupts with invisible servants. An antennae mounted above the pump interrogates your keys, gleans your ID, communicates with your financial depository, grants permission. This small windblown station is no longer a grimy oasis, but a bright electric node in a vast organism, a place that can call home quicker than you, nail your name to a time and a place and a date. It's all one big network and you're never alone.

I love it. Also, I can't stand it.

There's something to be said for being completely alone.

We also looked at carwashes. They had fewer sociological implications, but they still reflected the mood & needs of the day: reclamation technology has advanced to the point where it only takes 10 - 12 gallons of water to wash a car. Elaborate filtration systems make it possible to hose down the car without spending 60 gallons. Of course, you can't have a touchless closed-cycle system. Nossir. I love these conversations; even though I have no personal stake in the company other than the hope that my father's company continues & grows, it is necessary for me to know these things, speak the lingo, know what's involved. For most of my childhood I was ignorant of what my Dad did; during my petulant adolescence, I admired it and his labors - I wasn't so stupid that I couldn't see the scope of his accomplishment, but it wasn't for me, and I hated getting oily. Now it all seems more substantial than anything I do. Probably because it is. People do not need a newspaper column, but they do need gas. And a wash.

Driving away from the convention I noticed that the old HoJo had been sold to another chain; they'd painted the office-chapel white, but the old orange skin was showing in places.

Then I drove to Southdale to pick up some things. Did not buy a Jungle Gym or a dog with a music box in its belly.

Okay: basic price of a top-of-the-line wash with undercoating, foam, hot-air blowers: $5.00.

Cost to the station: fifty cents.

Just heard the TV downstairs notch up a few degrees in volume. My wife is attempting to compensate for the tinkly strains coming out of my Mac, as I play a record she hates. Well, no, hate is too strong a word. Let’s just say she does not comprehend it. I can’t blame her; I would have rolled my eyes at this dreck a year ago, but it has slid under my skin like a fiberglas sliver.

At least I recognize that this music is bad. It’s beyond bad; it’s so utterly plastic and formulaic, so weightless and inane that it almost attains some sort of Platonic ideal of Horridness. It’s the dreaded & reviled volume 2 of “Music for TV Dinners,” a compilation of music from commercials and industrial videos from the mid & late 60s, sent to me by the fine folks at Scamp records. The first volume - cheery brisky pizzacato ditties from the fifties - was a genuine treat, but this one concerns the 60s, and you can smell the cultural rot starting to set in. Someone ought to do a study on musical semiotics - i.e., which sounds & instruments signify which social messages. The general equation in the 50s volume is money first, sex second; each spry tune promotes breezy merry shopping, and the implication is simple: consumption does not equal sex, but leads to it. In the 60s volume, all the music has Dating-Game horns and wordless la-la-las from a chorus of single secretaries; the message is the opposite of the 50s. Sex first, money second.

I am not blowing smoke here, and none of this comprises a novel observation: for a couple hundred years, certain sounds and instruments had strict connotations that linger to this day. Trumpets: bravery, valor. French horns: wistful romance. Oboes: nerdy intellectual wistfulness. Flutes: amour. Etc. The stringed instruments have the greatest emotional range and versatility, from the violin to the electric guitar. Triangles are just audio cilantro. But if the sounds don't change, the arrangements do - and the way composers at particular times put those sounds together varies from age to age, and is a direct result of whatever cultural wind happens to be blowing through the era.

Obviously. Duh. But it’s the cultural context that makes this record so fascinating. It's all a geezerly attempt by the old guard to co-opt & assimilate 60s social trends for commercial purposes, turn the old instruments of the classical vocabulary into Hip Relevant ambassadors of the brave new age, marry the harpsichord with the fuzz guitar and hope the offspring makes people want to smooch & spend.

I suppose I find it fascinating because it was the background music of my childhood, and the sound of this vapid bouncy go-go pop brings long-gone memories to the front of the brain, recalls the Lost Years of youth that exist in a few blurry tableaus. If I close my eyes and think where I was when this music was commonplace, I can see my Fargo home in sharp detail - the typeface of the daily paper, the wallpaper and curtains, the bright oranges and browns on the TV game show sets, the ultra-groovy fonts in the comic book ads for Saturday morning cartoons on ABC, the whole look & feel of the age du merde that was the late 60s and early 70s.

In fact, lately I can't get that image out of my mind. The more I work on this upcoming Fargo web site - futzing and honing old postcards from 1911, 1920 - the more I think of limitless Saturdays in 1972. The broad private promise of the day stretching ahead. A walk downtown with my friend Peter. Stopping at Quality Bakery (turquoise storefront, big swirling script letters) for a donut, then down to the library, then Dirty Ernie's paperback bookstore on South 8th to find some treasure, then back home. Supper, no piano practice, a bike ride around town, listening to KQWB. (It was a sundowner station, and signed off at sunset with a vocoder barking the call letters in a flat robotic voice.) Alfred Hitchcock, the local Monster Movie, bed at the deliciously permissive hour of 12:30. In the background, from the radios of passing cars, embedded in the commercials on TV, floating in the malls, the exact same sort of music that's on this CD. Probably the same damn tunes.

What was salacious & swinging then - throaty flutes promising wild nights with TWA stewardesses! Groovy Tom-Jones bass line - now seems quaint and banal. In fact these hideous tunes are closer to big band music than they are to today's tunes. At least there's melody, and thank God there are no lyrics. Today I picked up Rolling Stone in the Star-Tribune library and read a story about Eminem, the latest flash-in-the-pan gibbering amusical sociopath to bob up to the surface for his fifteen minutes. The article contained a lengthy explanation of how he derived the lyrics for one of his snuff-tunes from personal experience. How he was angry at his girlfriend, and memorialized the emotion in a song about throwing her dead body in the lake with the help of their infant daughter. What really took my breath away was the fact that he enlisted his infant daughter in the recording of the song. And put her picture on an early version of the album's cover.

I think this explains why Scamp records put out Music for TV Dinners. Why lounge & swing are having their temporary renaissance. They have structure and melody and skill, all of which implicitly endorse the need for order and values. Now, you can argue with the nature of the order and the values, but at least the old songs make the case for HAVING standards. Not so with our friend Eminem - and we shouldn't be surprised. This will seem like a stretch, but: there's a direct, if crooked, line from Stephen Still's "Love the One You're With" to Eminem's ethos, which is essentially Kill the one you're with if the bitch gets annoying.

When the general cultural ethos worships the unraveling of social norms, it usually fails to establish & defend a norm to replace what it destroys. It happens with every revolution; you start by tearing down the law of the king, and you end up destroying the notion of law, period. Eventually, the defense of the notion of law is seen as counter-revolutionary. So Rolling Stone starts its existance by celebrating Lennon, and ends up putting on its cover a man who spent his visitation day with his daughter recording a song about killing her mother.

To protest this would be close-minded. Why, that would just give fuel to Parent's Music Resource Center, which would lead directly to fascism.


Cold day; cloudy. Walked dog and wrote column and talked to England on the radio; downloaded some fonts which require a complete overhaul of the Fargo site - a job to which I now return.