Family Business

Family Business
a short story by Joshua Ellis

The iterating of these lines brings gold;
The framing of this circle on the ground
Brings whirlwinds, tempests, thunder, and lightning.
–Christopher Marlowe

There’s nothing strange about an axe with bloodstains in the barn
‘Cause there’s always some killing you got to do around the farm.
–Tom Waits

*   *   *

“There’s a demon in y’alls’s barn,” said Betsy as I came up the road.

I was all dirty from bringing in the pigs, and I washed my hands under the faucet next to the door — if I came in the house with my hands all dirty, Momma was like to throw a fit, even if I didn’t touch nothing.

“You hear me?” Betsy demanded. She was eleven going on twelve, and I was fourteen, almost grown up; I wouldn’t have ever talked to her except she lived down the road, and she was bossy, always putting her hands on her hips and yelling at me for getting up to dickens, like she was my momma or my boss or something. Like she was doing now. She pushed her glasses up her nose. They were too big for her, and made her look like a little blonde owl.

I finished up and looked at her. “I heard you,” I said. I decided to humor her. “What did it look like?”

She shrugged. “Like one a them out of your book,” she said. I winced. Right before Halloween I’d taken one of Daddy’s books out of his library and shown it to her, to scare her, like. Her momma’d come to the house and had a talk with Daddy, said Betsy’d been pissing the bed.

I thought he was gonna whip the hell out of me, but he just sat me down and told me I couldn’t ever tell nobody about the library, or any of the old family stuff. “People wouldn’t understand,” he said. “Wasn’t too long ago they was burning folks up North for being witches.”

“We ain’t witches,” I said, and he laughed. “I know that, boy,” he said, “but most folk can’t tell no difference. They wouldn’t understand, like me being friends with Jim Cowan.”

I thought it was over after that, but now here was little Betsy pushing up her owl glasses and standing in my dooryard talking about demons. Momma told me once that some mistakes you keep paying for long after you think you ought to be done paying, and I guessed this was the sort of thing she was talking about.

I looked up to the house, nervously. Daddy was inside with his best friend, Mr. Cowan, listening to the President on the radio talking about something he called a “New Deal”. I could hear Daddy laughing in there, but it didn’t sound like he thought it was funny.

“New Deal my ass,” he said to Mr. Cowan. “Ain’t never been no new deal for the working man. Always been the same Old Deal.”

“Shit,” Mr. Cowan said, only it was more like sheeeeit. “At least y’all got an old deal. Us niggers ain’t never had no kind of deal at all.” My daddy cracked up hard at that, and then Mr. Cowan started laughing too.

Mr. Cowan taught down at the Negro school on the other side of town. I think he was their only teacher. Daddy said he was a king hell piano player too; he played at church Sunday night, but Fridays and Saturdays he’d go down to the roadhouse down by the highway and play all night. I asked Daddy once  if we could go see him, if he was so good, but Daddy said no. I asked him if he was ashamed to be seen with a nigger, and that was the only time he ever laid a hand on me. He slapped me hard across the face, but a second later his face was all sad. I was more shocked than anything.

“I’m sorry, boy,” he said. “I didn’t mean to do that. But I don’t ever wanna hear you call anybody that, you hear? It ain’t right. Mr. Cowan’s as good as you or me, and maybe better than me, come to think of it.”

“Then why can’t we go down and hear him play?” I asked.

Daddy smiled, but it was all tight on his face. “Because you know and I know there ain’t nothing wrong with it,” he said, “but if somebody like them McCormicks saw us, they’d cause trouble.”

“Trouble for us?” I asked him. He nodded. “For us, but more for Jim,” he said. “And I ain’t gonna bring that down on nobody if I ain’t got no reason to.”

I could hear the clink of beer bottles inside, which was good; it meant nobody was paying attention to what I was doing…and nobody was gonna hear Betsy babblin’ about demons.

“Ain’t no damn demon in my barn,” I said to her. “Now run on home.” Her eyes opened wide; behind those glasses of hers, it looked like two moons rising. “There is too a demon,” she said, “and I’m gonna tell your momma you was swearin’.” She made like she was gonna run up to my porch, and I ran forward to intercept her.

“Alright, shut up,” I said. “Ain’t you a baby?”

“Come and see,” she said, and she actually grabbed my hand and started dragging me along. So I went and saw.


*   *   *


The barn was older than our house; it was already there when my great-granddaddy bought our land right after the War ended — the Union War, not the one Daddy fought in over in Europe. I think the barn was why he bought the land; it was weird looking, not a normal big square barn but in this strange shape. It had five sides, or maybe six, I could never keep in my head which: it seemed like every time I counted it was different, but I wasn’t sure. It was made out of some kind of weird wood that was nearly black and looked like some kind of stone, and it didn’t hold a coat of paint worth a damn. Daddy had tried to paint it red a couple of times — he called it “protective camouflage” — but every time he did, he’d come out the next day and all the paint would be puddled up on the ground like it had dripped off during the night. After a while he’d stopped trying. He seemed to think it was funny. But he never kept the animals in it at all — he built a whole pen for the pigs and the cows that was all the way on the other side of the house from the barn, which was about a quarter-mile down a trail from our yard. It didn’t make any sense to me.

It was just starting to get dark around that time, and the barn cast a long shadow across the fields. It made me feel weird, like I didn’t want to walk inside it…but I could see, even in the dim light, that the big double doors were open. Not all the way, but more open than they ought to be.

“Were you playing in there?” I asked Betsy. “Goddamnit, girl, don’t be doing that. My daddy’ll tan your hide and mine too if he catches you in there. It’s dangerous.”

But she was shaking her head, and didn’t even call me out for cussing. “I was just walkin’ by,” she said, “and them doors came open, and I heard somebody inside. They was calling my name. I thought it might be your daddy, so I went and poked my head in.”

“And what did you see?”

“Something real bad,” she said, and took my hand again.

It seemed like it was twenty degrees colder in the shadow of the barn, but I put my big boy face on and went to the doors. Betsy stood twenty feet away, looking like she was going to run. I peeked my head inside.

The demon was sitting in the middle of the pile of hay at the far side of the barn. It looked kind of like somebody had taken a man and skinned him up for meat, but there was other stuff done to it too, like some kind of scientist had been doing an experiment. It was rubbing its pecker, but kinda bored like.

It grinned when it saw me.

You’d think I would’ve screamed and run away then, but I didn’t. I hadn’t ever seen anything like that demon before, but I’d seen plenty of other peculiar stuff. You couldn’t help it, being part of my family.

I tensed up, ready to grab Betsy and run if it moved, but it didn’t do anything, just looked at me and grinned and stroked that big old hog-leg it had.

“What you want?” I called to it, trying to sound tough. I didn’t feel tough.

It didn’t say anything.

“You ain’t got no business here,” I told it, “and you better get the hell out of here before I call my Daddy. He’ll come down here and kick your ass for you.”

It smiled even wider. “By a strange coincidence,” it said, “your daddy is exactly who I want to see.” It sounded like one of them rich people from up North who pretend like they’re from England when they talk, but when it said daddy its voice went into a deep drawl, like it was making fun of me.

“Then why the hell you hidin’ out in the barn?” I asked it. “He doesn’t ever come down here. Ain’t even no cows in here.”

“I cannot traverse the boundaries of the circle,” it said.

I frowned. “You mean the barn?” I said. “Barn’s ain’t no circle. It has fi–six–a bunch of sides on it. What are you, a dummy?”

“Bravado,” it said. “Perhaps I’ll rape you before I eat you, so you learn something. The term ‘circle’ is symbolic. Go get your father.”

“Oh, I’ll go get him,” I said, “and he’s gonna come back here and whip the shit out of you. I might help him.”

“We’ll see,” the demon said. “Go now. I’m almost finished here,” and it started jerking itself harder.

I wrenched up my face in disgust and closed the door. Betsy stared at me.

“You was talking to it?” she whispered. “What’d it say?”

“Nothing,” I told her. “I got to go get my Daddy.” I hunkered down a bit, so my face was in front of hers. “Listen, Betsy,” I said, “you gotta swear to me you ain’t gonna tell nobody about this. Not even your momma or your daddy, okay?”

She whimpered, like a puppy. There were tears dripping down off her glasses. “It talked to me, too,” she said. “It said bad stuff. Dirty stuff. I was scared.”

I put my arms around her. “Don’t you worry,” I said, “it can’t come out of there.”

“Why not?”

I shrugged. “I dunno. But it can’t. And I’m gonna fix this. You believe that?”

She nodded and sniffed, but she didn’t look sure. I tousled her head.

“It’s alright,” I said. “You just run along home, now.”

“Where you goin?” she asked me. I smiled at her.

“I’m gonna go get my Daddy,” I said.


*   *   *


“Boy, are you having fun with me?”

“No, Daddy,” I said. He and Mr. Cowan sat at the Formica kitchen table, both of them eyeing me like I was a prize turkey. “I swear to God, it’s true. That’s what it…he…said. Said to come get you.”

Daddy looked at Mr. Cowan. “Whatcha reckon, Jim?” he said.

Mr. Cowan rubbed his middle finger on his forehead, which I’d noticed he always did when anybody asked him something he had to think about. “It doesn’t sound like nothing I’m familiar with,” he said. “Nothing Christian. Maybe hermetic?”

Daddy seemed to think about it. “Could be,” he said.

“But why the hell is it in your damn barn?” Mr. Cowan said. “You been doin anything out there?”

Daddy leaned back in his chair and half-smiled. “What do you mean, exactly, by ‘doin anything’?” he asked.

Mr. Cowan gave him the same look, I figured, that he gave kids in his class who were getting sassy. “You know exactly what the hell I mean, Darius Harkness,” he said, “and don’t you go bein all coy on me. This shit is serious.”

Daddy sighed. “Alright,” he said. “Maybe I was going through the Libris Infernium. Maybe I was trying out some stuff. Nothing big.”

“Big enough,” said Mr. Cowan. “You summoned this, this whatever-the-hell-it-is, and it got pulled into the nearest circle of protection. Which, in this county, is that ugly goddamn barn of yours.”

He and Daddy looked at one another for a long minute, their faces stony and serious. Then they both started laughing, fit to beat the band. Daddy was howling and gasping for breath, so hard he slid off his chair and onto the floor.

“Oh, what the hell you two up to?” Momma called from the basement. She was down there putting up cans in the pickle cellar. She came up the stairs, wiping the dust off her hands onto her apron. Momma was nearly as tall as Daddy; he said it was because she was a big ol’ Nordic frost giant by way of Fort Worth, Texas, and she said he ought to know better than to say a woman was a big ol’ anything. She came into the kitchen and stood towering over him, and put her hands on her hips, the way little Betsy did.

“Well, honey,” Daddy said, still chuckling, “looks like I got some uninvited company up to the barn.” He looked at Mr. Cowan, and then they were both off again, Mr. Cowan’s big white teeth shining in his brown face as he slapped the table with his hand.

Momma groaned. “Goddamnit,” she said. She leaned over and whacked Daddy on his head and shoulders with her palm. He just kept laughing. “You ain’t got the sense God gave a gopher, Darius Harkness,” she said. “You ever think about what could happen to your family, you pulling this foolishness? You ever think about that?”

“Aw, hell, honey,” Daddy said, trying to pull himself to his feet. “It’s stuck in the damn barn. It can’t even walk through the doors.”

“But he can,” Momma said, pointing at me. “You ever think about what woulda happened if he’d gone playing down there?”

“Aw, Momma,” I said, “I don’t play no more.”

“You keep your trap shut,” she said to me, her lips tight, her eyes squinted down to slits. She turned back to Daddy. “If anything had happened to him–”

“Nothing happened, baby, and nothing ever would. He ain’t stupid. He knows better than to go fucking around in that barn–”

“Don’t you curse in front of the boy, Darius,” Momma said, and whacked him again, but this only had the effect of getting him laughing all over again. “The two of you better quit braying like a couple of goddamn donkeys and go down there and take care of this, you hear me? I ain’t kidding with you. Now, you hear me? Right now.

“Y-yes, mother,” Daddy said, trying to contain his laughter. “Better see what we got in the library,” he said, and he and Mr. Cowan went into the library.

You wouldn’t expect, looking at our house from the outside, that it contained an actual library; we weren’t rich folk by any means, and even though Momma worked real hard to keep the place clean and looking respectable, the fact was that we lived in a broken-down old farmhouse with windows that didn’t close all the way and floorboards that you could see through into the basement, if you laid down on em and peeked your eye through.

I’d never quite figured out exactly how we did have a library, really. I’d walked around outside and looked at the house, and then walked inside and looked into the library, which was a largish room with a high ceiling, and I couldn’t exactly understand where it actually went, within the walls. It didn’t have any windows, which was weird, since it was — I was pretty sure — on the outside of the house. It just had shelves on every wall, nearly to the ceiling, and in the middle a table made of thick old oak planks that looked like something out of one of Daddy’s old pulp books about pirates. I wasn’t allowed in the library when Daddy wasn’t in it; Momma wouldn’t go in there at all, not even to clean things, though it never seemed dirty.

But sometimes I’d sneak in by myself when Daddy was in town or away on business — like the time I took that book to show Betsy — and whenever I did, I always had this weird feeling like I wasn’t really still in the house at all, or even Callum County — like I was in some kind of other place completely. Like I went in there once in the middle of July, and the whole time I was in there I could hear the wind howling outside like there was some kind of blizzard out there.

At least, I think it was the wind.

Daddy threw the doors open and went inside with Mr. Cowan, and I followed them. Daddy went to the shelf to the left of the door and started walking sideways like a crab, hunched down, running his finger across the spines of the books as he went.

“Dee and Kelly?” he said to Mr. Cowan, who was looking at the books on the right side of the door. Mr. Cowan laughed. “Them old frauds?” he said. “Not for this.”

Daddy kept looking, occasionally pulling a book from the shelves and tucking it under his arm. When he had five or six of them, he took them to the big table and plonked them down. Mr. Cowan brought a couple of his own books over, and they started poring over them.

This got real boring after a while, so I started wandering around, looking at the books myself. Most of them didn’t even seem to be in English. I wished I spoke Latin, but we weren’t Catholics or anything. (We didn’t go to church at all, actually, and when I asked Daddy what kind of people we were if we weren’t Catholics or Baptists or Lutherans, he laughed and told me he guessed we were Democrats.) If we had been Catholics, I might have been able to tell you what De Vermis Mysteriis was. The Mysterious Vermin, I guessed.

Finally, Daddy called me over. “Was this what you saw, boy?” he asked me, and held up a big book whose pages were yellowed with age. There was a woodcut in it, and I peered at it.

“I think so,” I said. “Only he ain’t got his pecker out in this one.”

Daddy and Mr. Cowan looked at each other, and Mr. Cowan whistled. “Sheeeit, boy,” he said to Daddy. “Looks like you hooked yourself one big goddamn catfish.”

Daddy closed the book and put it back on the pile. “Well, I guess we better go throw his ass back in the river. You got your shotgun?”

“I wanna go with you!” I said.

“Absolutely not,” Daddy said. “Your mother’d skin me and hang my hide on the wall for company to look at.”

“Aw, Daddy, come on, please?” I said. “How am I supposed to learn nothin if you won’t let me watch?”

“I don’t think your momma wants you learnin nothin,” Daddy said, but he looked at Mr. Cowan, who shrugged. “It ain’t really like the boy got much choice in the matter, is it?” he said. “Might as well start now, when you still got an eye on him, than later, when you don’t.”

Daddy looked at him, then back at me, for a long minute. Finally he nodded. “Alright,” he said, “but don’t let your momma see.”

He and Mr. Cowan swept out of the room, and I followed them. I realized nobody’d put the books back on the shelves, and I opened my mouth to say something, but then I heard a noise behind me.

When I turned around, the table was empty. I guess somebody put the books away.


*   *   *


It was full dark by then, and Daddy grabbed his Ray-O-Vac flashlight and his shotgun from out of the hall closet. Mr. Cowan had an electric lantern, and he picked up the machete Daddy used to cut the weeds in the fall.

My heart dropped about a hundred feet when we got outside and Momma was standing in the dooryard, but then I realized she’d taken off her apron and her sun dress and put on the overalls she kept for gardening, and tied up her hair with a length of rawhide. And she had Daddy’s Sears & Roebuck axe in her hand, which she was swinging around a little, like she was testing the heft of it.

“Hell you think you’re doing?” Daddy asked her.

“You think I’m letting you two idiots take my only boy down there without me, you must be drunk or stupid,” Momma said.

They stared at each other.

“Goddamn, that’s why I love you, woman,” Daddy said with a grin, and started off down the path to the barn. After a second, Mr. Cowan shook his head and followed. I looked at Momma, and flicked her hand at me.

“Well?” she said. “You’re the big demon hunter now, boy, get your ass moving.”

She followed me and I followed them, and five minutes later we were at the barn.

Even from outside, that demon sounded as pissed off as a prize bull with his nuts cut off. We could hear him banging around inside and throwing things around. Occasionally he’d let out this sound like a pig getting its throat cut. And he kept shouting something. It took me a second to recognize the sound of my own name.

Harknesssssss!” it shrieked.

“God in Heaven,” Mr. Cowan said.

“For your sake, I damn sure hope so,” said Daddy, and he opened the barn doors.

As soon as he did it was silent, like somebody’d shut the door of a madhouse. I stood behind Daddy and Mr. Cowan and peered over their shoulders.

The demon was sitting in the middle of the barn’s floor with its legs crossed, like an Indian swami. It looked up, and I thought it was still grinning until Daddy put his flashlight on its face and I realized it hadn’t ever been grinning at all. It just didn’t have any lips.

“Harkness,” it said. “Harkness, your mother sucks cocks in Hell, Harknesssssssss.”

“Probably,” Daddy said. “She sure sucked enough of them on Earth, way I heard it.” Momma slapped him on his back from behind. “That ain’t no way to talk about your momma,” she said.

“How dare you?” the demon said. “How dare you summon me, like I was your dog? Do you know who I am?”

“I got a fair idea,” Daddy said. “I ain’t impressed.”

“You will be,” the demon said, licking the cauterized wounds around its mouth. “When I peel off your son’s face and use it as a condom while I sodomize your wife, you’ll be quite impressed, I think.”

“You hear the mouth on him?” Daddy said to Mr. Cowan. “Perverted sonofabitch, ain’t he?”

“Just do it,” Mr. Cowan said, “and quit fucking around.”

“Oh, alright,” Daddy said. “Priinceps gloriosissime cælestis militiæ–”

The demon reached a hand back between its legs, grunted, shit into its palm, and flung it at Daddy, who took it right across the face.

“You think you can dismiss me with that children’s nursery rhyme?” the demon said, sneering. “And I thought the Harkness family was possessed of power. How sweet it will be, when I drag your violated carcass down the road of razors that leads to the gates of Pandemonium, when I hang your head from a spike made from the penis of a blue whale for all to see, when I–”

“Enough, already, you’re giving me a goddamn headache,” said Daddy. He raised his shotgun.

“Oh, shit, cover your ears, baby,” Momma said, and she and I both did. Mr. Cowan winced and turned away.

Daddy pulled the trigger and half the demon’s head went spraying onto the wall of the barn. It stood there for a moment, its remaining eye wide in shock, and then it slowly spiraled and slid to the floor.

“Whew,” Daddy said. “It’s alright now.” He stepped into the barn and, after a moment, the rest of us followed him. We looked down at the dying creature, coughing blood all over its own face, or what remained of it.

“How…how did you…” it sputtered.

“You’re a plain goddamn fool,” Daddy said. “I invoked you into the material world. That makes you material too. What are you, stupid?”

“I told you my daddy was gonna whip your ass,” I said to the demon. “You shoulda listened to me.”

The demon looked up at me, into my face, and its eye focused on me. Its lips pulled back, and this time I could tell it was smiling.

“Guadalcanal,” it said. “Christmas. A bayonet in the throat. The last thing you’ll think of is Betsy and the baby.”

And then it fell back, and it was limp. A smell came up off of it like burnt sugar.

I looked at Daddy. “What the hell was it talking about?” I asked him. “Guadalupe? Was that what it said?”

He looked past me at Mr. Cowan, who shook his head just the tiniest bit, his eyes wide. Then he smiled and ruffled my hair.

“Nothing,” he said. “Not a goddamn thing. Let’s go get the shovels, Jim. I think there’s a hole needs digging, out back.”

“I’ll go make supper,” said Momma, but she had a strange cast to her eyes when she looked at me. “Why don’t you come back on up to the house and help me shell some peas. Maybe you…maybe you wanna invite that Betsy to come eat with us.”

“Sure, I guess,” I said. “She’s a pain, though. If it wasn’t for her we wouldn’t have gotten in this mess in the first place. And didn’t that nasty old thing say something about her anyway?”

“Did it?” Daddy said, staring at the shotgun as he ejected the spent shells and peered down the barrels. “I really didn’t notice.”

“You run along,” Momma said. “Be back in a half hour.”

“Yes, ma’am,” I said. “See you later, Mr. Cowan.”

“I’ll–I’ll see you, boy,” Mr. Cowan said, but he didn’t turn around.

I ran out of the barn and back towards the road that led to Betsy’s house. I felt strangely proud, even though I hadn’t really done anything. For the first time, I felt like I was beginning to understand who I was, and what my place was in the universe.

I had my whole life ahead of me.

Coldplay – Mylo Xyloto

I have a problem with Coldplay.

It’s not that they suck; they really don’t suck. They’re clearly talented musicians, and Chris Martin — as he proved all those centuries ago with “Yellow” — is clearly a talented singer.

What bothers me is not that Coldplay sucks, but that their records suck. I don’t understand why or how this happens. They’ve clearly got the skills to make really good records, and they’ve got Brian Eno producing them on this new one Mylo Xyloto and the last one, which I think was called A Perfectly Lovely Dinner Party With Friends or something similar. Eno is not known for producing crappy music. In point of fact, he’s known for goading relatively uninteresting bands (or rather band, or rather U2) into creating really good work. (For a comparison, look at the records U2 put out without Eno, which — aside from Boy and War — have all the charisma of an accounting seminar.)

So why in the name of Hell’s garbage truck is Mylo Xyloto so goddamn dull?

I have Coldplay on my iPod. I do. I’m comfortable enough with my sexuality to admit that, despite a decade of “You know how I know you’re gay, etc.” jokes about the band. Yes, they’re big ol’ pussies. And that’s okay. I find it amusing that people will crack endless jokes about Coldplay and yet have an artist like Bon Iver in constant rotation. I mean, Bon Iver is a giant pussy. Bon Iver makes Dan Fogelberg look like G.G. Allin. It’s music for girls with asymmetric haircuts to cry to when their boyfriend Tyler leaves them for his coke dealer, who is a dude. Apparently it’s okay to be a big pussy if you’re an American with a Grizzly Adams beard who records your albums in, I dunno, a fucking cabin in the middle of the Michigan forest or whatever the hell these kids think is “authentic”. But it’s not okay, it seems, if you’re a metrosexual Englishman permanently wrapped in Ben Sherman high streetwear whose family consists of a decreasingly famous actress and a child named after a computer company.

The Coldplay I have on my iPod consists of their previous album, which is actually called Viva La Vida (Death And All His Friends) (which we’ll get to in a minute) and a track from their first album called “Don’t Panic“. I really like this song a lot. It’s not just the Douglas Adams reference in the title (which Martin has done a couple of times); it’s the combination of the echoing guitar line and the lyrics and the way Martin sings “And we live in a beautiful world / yeah, we do, yeah, we do” in the chorus, in a way that suggests that he might not be telling the truth. It’s short as hell and lovely and I’ll fight anybody who suggests it’s not at least as good as a Radiohead song.

I don’t have “Yellow”, the band’s first big single, on my iPod, because it was impossible to be anywhere in the Westernized world in the early 00s and not hear that song playing. But it’s still a great pop single. The lyrics are odd without being irritating, the hooks are solid, and Martin’s voice is perfect, with that little falsetto yelp that approximates an Irish séan nos hiccup without actually being one.

So I know — I know, goddamnit — that Coldplay are or at least were capable of producing good music. Their position as a sort of diet caffeine-free version of Radiohead has been a running joke for a decade now, but that’s fine. They didn’t have to be Radiohead. But they could have been a really good Coldplay.

The problem, I suspect, is that Chris Martin wants to be liked by everybody. And, as Paul Carr pointed out to me the other day, people who want everyone to like them end up being liked by nobody at all, except Gwyneth Paltrow. Coldplay strike me as the type of band who remix their work endlessly and by committee, trying to achieve some kind of sonic Arcadia, a blissful aural landscape of perfectly stadium-friendly bottom end and hopeful, soaring guitars.

The result is a sort of musical version of the decorational accents they sell at Ikea in between the Billy bookshelves and the improbably small platform beds. It’s fine and nice and goes well with your lifestyle…but it’s devoid of any personality. It’s free from criticism because it offers nothing of itself. It’s wallpaper.

I got Viva La Vida because Eno produced it, and Eno is worshipped as a god in my household (or at least in the part of it that’s actually my head). I expected a revelation; I hoped that Viva La Vida would be Coldplay’s The Unforgettable Fire, the moment when they stepped up their game and became really interesting.

This was not the case. In fact, aside from the title track, the music slid off my brain like it was made of Teflon. Aside from the title track, I literally cannot remember any of Viva La Vida, despite having listened to it at least ten times all the way through. (Usually while cooking, which seems to be the ideal Coldplay listening situation, because their music is actually improved by the sound of sizzling hot oil.) “Viva La Vida” the song is almost interesting; to my ears, what it’s really missing is a harder beat, a more driving bassline. Without it, it’s music for car commercials.

I’m not going to tell you about Mylo Xyloto, because I got about three songs into it and turned it off. Like all of their post-Parachutes work, it was unlistenable, because it was completely devoid of any corners or edges for the mind to hook in to. It reminded me of those lifestyle-porn spreads in magazines like Dwell and Metropolis where bourgeois bohemians show off their exquisitely designed minimalist living spaces. It’s pretty to look at, but you have to wonder what kind of madness creeps in after a few months of living in a stainless steel-and-MDF universe. I imagine these people find themselves fighting the near-uncontrollable urge to grab a Sharpie and start drawing giant cocks on the unbroken expanses of off-white paneling that surround them. The same is true for Coldplay; I suspect that Mylo Xyloto would be endlessly improved by running it through a Squarepusher-style glitch plugin that caused it to skip and stammer.

Also, Rihanna sings on it. I know a lot of you are convinced that Rihanna is good, and that makes me want to go live in the goddamn Michigan forest with Bon Iver and the ghost of Mark Linkous and hoard a stack of Nina Simone records until you all come to your senses. Or die off like the dinosaurs.

This speaks to one of Chris Martin’s more annoying behaviors: namely, his public flirtation with American hip-hop and his bromances with guys like 50 Cent and Jay-Z. I have no idea whether this is all sincere and legitimate on a personal level, or some kind of surreal attempt to establish “street cred”, which is a concept completely orthogonal to the very notion of Coldplay, like the idea of the European Union attempting to look sexy at a party. Certainly his attempts to integrate American urban music into Coldplay’s oeuvre are an act of absurdist theater that would be offensive if it wasn’t such a fucking non sequitur.

And maybe a Coldplay record produced by Jay-Z might be interesting. (It’s a long shot, but hey, stranger things have happened.) I think Eno’s considerable talents are wasted on this source material. What I’d really love to hear is a Coldplay record produced by Squarepusher, or Burial — someone who could strip away the polish, make it ugly, confrontational in spots, make it not appeal to everyone.

They could do it, they really could. I’m convinced that, deep down, Coldplay has the talent to be remarkable. After all, who could have extrapolated Kid A from Pablo Honey, or Achtung Baby from Rattle & Hum, or the Gorillaz from “Boys And Girls”? Despite the reputation of the UK music press as being jeering and suspicious when a musical artist tries to rise above their station, British bands seem to have a lot more ambition at reinventing themselves every so often. And like U2 and Radiohead before them, Coldplay’s in a position to get their freak on if they so desire, to not only change their own artistic statement (or simply make one in the first place) but change the whole conversation of music.

If you’re not old like me, you don’t remember how completely goddamn weird Achtung Baby sounded after the stadium anthems of The Joshua Tree and the pompousness of Rattle & Hum. And yet, it was one of U2’s bestselling records…and you can see the way that it changed the musical landscape. Ditto with Kid A, which was the number one Billboard album for at least a couple of weeks despite being a skittering bleepy piece of Krautrock madness.

When you’ve gotten to a certain point, you can afford to fuck around, try new things, become a new idea. And I wish Coldplay would do it, because as it stands they’re poised to become the musical equivalent of a boutique hotel: a tasteful, lovely environment in which no one actually lives.

If you’re thinking of buying Mylo Xyloto, do yourself a favor and go buy the last couple of albums by Elbow and Jamie Woon‘s self-titled debut instead, and wait in hopes — as I do — that Coldplay will eventually produce something of lasting value, because this ain’t it.

Thoughts on Occupy Las Vegas

I attended a meetup for the Occupy Las Vegas movement tonight, which is planning a protest march on the Las Vegas Strip on Thursday. By and large, I was glad to see so many people from so many different walks of life out to support this movement. However, I had some concerns and some suggestions to make sure everything runs smoothly. I recognize that with some of these issues I may sound paranoid…but I’d rather be absurdly wrong about the things I’m concerned about than be even slightly right.

In security analysis, one of the measurements you do is threat versus risk; in other words, what am I afraid is going to happen, and how likely is it to actually happen?

The risk here is pretty small; I hope and think that Thursday will be nice and peaceful. But there has apparently been some discussion about the possibility of interference by either black bloc anarchists or right-wing provocateurs. Unlikely as that may be, it raises the stakes a little. The black bloc goofballs can escalate a peaceful protest into a massive flaming shitstorm in short order; if you don’t believe me, ask anybody who was at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999. And hell, they’re nominally on the same side; if any of the wingnuts from Nevada’s Tea Party or Nazi groups show up and start getting rowdy it’d be even worse.

And while the risk is low, the threat is high. You’ve got a crowd that’s estimated to be between 500 – 700 people, mostly people who’ve never protested or participated in an event like this before; almost none of them, I’m willing to bet, have ever been in a protest that’s gone violent. If badness happened, most of them wouldn’t have any idea of what to do. There’s been a lot of discussion on OLV’s Facebook page about what to do in case of arrests…while at the same time, people are being invited to bring their children, which is frankly fucking idiotic. Don’t bring your kids if being arrested or being attacked is enough of a possibility that a bail bonds company is offering fee-free bail bonds to protesters. I mean, imagine if you did get arrested; in the heat of things, are you sure somebody would know to even tell your kid? And who would take responsibility for getting them home safely if that happened?

Also, something else to consider: though I understand that both the security teams for the adjacent casinos and Metro are apparently being helpful, don’t forget that their goals — keeping the tourists and their money moving and maintaining order, respectively — are at cross-purposes to this protest, which is designed to attract attention and disrupt the status quo.

There’s also the fact — which no one seems to have pointed out — that this is a protest against the excesses of capitalism that’s being held in the most excessively capitalist place on the entire planet. It’s like walking into Disneyland and calling Walt Disney a Nazi prick; you may have the right to do it, and nobody may stop you…but they’re not going to be on your side if things go wrong, either.

I could keep going, but I hope I’ve made it clear that the organizers of OLV cannot afford to be naive about this. Hope for the best — a nice day where people’s voices are heard and everyone has a peaceful, wonderful time — and at least make the minimum necessary preparations for the worst. So here’s my specific advice:

  • 1) Have your security/peacekeeping team walk your route. Estimate how long it’ll take the average protester (which means the mass of the group) to walk the route. Establish checkpoints along the route — say at the end of every city block. Assign one security person to each of those points, to remain there from the time the group leaves the starting point until the last person passes by. Figure out exit points in case something goes wrong — if there’s violence, you want to make sure people have alternative routes to get away from it. These routes should not involve entering the casinos, because once you do, you’re on their property and you can be arrested even if you’re not doing anything particularly wrong. Figure out how to get people between the casinos, or through their service driveways, out to Koval to the east or Dean Martin to the west, in case something goes wrong. If it does, make sure your security people know where to lead others to get away.
  • 2) Give your security people walkie-talkies. There was some suggestion that people could communicate via cell phones. Cell phones are a slow and unreliable tool. Walkie-talkies are cheap. Get some. Make sure everybody can talk to everybody else. If a fight breaks out at the front of the mass group, make sure the people at the back of the mass group don’t just keep walking towards or (God help you all) surround it.
  • 3) Watch the crowd. Think of a bouncer at a nightclub; the bouncer’s job is not to beat up somebody who gets rowdy, but to know who’s going to get rowdy and stop them peacefully before they can. Most of the people who are going to show up are going to be good, happy, peaceful people. But statistically speaking, the likelihood is good that at least one or two people are going to be absolutely stone fucking crazy or provocateurs or just drunk. Know who these people are before everything gets underway.
  • 4) Keep your cameras out. I had suggested that somebody track down one of those digital video cameras that always stores the last 30 seconds buffered in RAM, but that’s not going to happen before Thursday. So everybody keep your cameras out. If anything goes wrong, film it — video, still photos, whatever — and upload it offsite to Flickr or Facebook or Twitter as fast as you can. I don’t think Metro is going to start busting heads for no reason, but if they do, you want pictures of it on Twitter before anybody can grab your camera. The world may be watching, but only if you’re giving them something to watch.
  • 5) Keep families together. If people really do bring their kids (out of naivete or a lack of other options), keep the people with kids all together, preferably at the back of the group. That way, if anything bad happens, they’re not stuck in the middle of it, and they can break off and find safety.

Again, I’m sure I sound hyper-paranoid. Maybe I am. I hope so. But if I’m not, well…do you really want to see what happens when you take 500-700 of the fabled 99% and start blasting them with pepper spray? What would you do? Would you calmly sit down and wait for the nice policeman to put the zip ties on your hands…or would you blindly run into a street filled with cars driven by drunk tourists who are too busy staring at some goddamn fountain to notice you?

So take these simple precautions. It’s worth the minimal cost and effort. I’ll help, if I can, any way I can. But if these steps aren’t taken, I’m not going to be within a mile of the Strip on Thursday, because I won’t feel secure in my freedom or safety. This can all go off without a hitch with some careful planning…so let’s plan.

New Red State Soundsystem single – “Entropy”

The new Red State Soundsystem single, “Entropy”, was inspired by Neil Gaiman and Mike Carey’s take on the character of Lucifer in DC’s Vertigo comics line (specifically Gaiman’s Sandman and Carey’s Lucifer). It’s also a bit of an experimental track.

The vocal treatments were achieved by tripling the lead vocal, pitch-shifting it, and doing some other various weirdness to everything. It was inspired by the way Scorsese treated Satan’s voice in The Last Temptation Of Christ. (Which was probably just an Eventide Harmonizer.) All vocals, needless to say, are mine. I was also attempting to do something a bit more straight-up “rock” than the usual RSS tracks, though it of course still ended up being weird.

I’m not sure about this track — I like it a lot, but I don’t know if RSS fans will. But I figure it’s my job to try new things. Some of them stick, some don’t.

The b-side is an acoustic version of “Berlin Floor Show” with some additional lyrics (not mine).

Corollary thoughts on auditory AR/ambient stuff

  • Many years ago I read about a dude who’d converted Unix server logs into a real-time auditory environment — specifically, a rain forest. Server load controlled the level of the rain, CGI calls were bird chirps, potential malicious attacks were the cough of a jaguar, etc. Sadly, I can’t find any info on this anymore. Anybody know anything?
  • A simpler, easy-to-implement application: you assign musical DNA traits to individual aspects of your collected data stream, and your Pandora/ retrieves music accordingly. For example: whenever I receive new mail, play “excited” music. Or whenever I sell an item on Etsy, play Iggy Pop’s “Success”. It’s not matching music to your mood, it’s matching it to your information landscape.
  • Once I turn on Stikki’s “local only” feature, I’m thinking of seeding the world with microcompositions — music only available when the user is in a specific location. Like “Soundtrack to the corner of Maryland and Harmon”.
  • Somebody ought to pay me to think about this stuff. Everybody email Joi and tell him to hire me at the Media Lab. 😉

Augmented (non-visual) reality

Been thinking a lot about augmented reality recently, for fairly obvious reasons. The other night I was talking to Yiying Lu at the first LaunchUp Las Vegas about AR and the possibilities inherent in it, and it got me thinking.

I’ve always had a big interest in ambient information interfaces and what is apparently called “calm technology“. Ambient information is really the idea that much of the information we’re required to monitor/process in our daily lives doesn’t actually require our complete attention all the time; that our interface to it can be passive, subliminal, rather than active and engaged.

For example, several years ago a company called Ambient Devices debuted a product called Ambient Orb that was basically a frosted globe with multicolored LEDs in it. This device connected up to your various data streams and changed color based on their status. For example, you could set the Orb to glow red if you had unread email, or change color based upon the performance of your stocks. The idea was that you wouldn’t have to sit and actively engage with your data; you could reduce it to a simple, nearly-binary yes/no or color-based alert system.

The Orb never really did much for me, because it used a weird non-standard wireless network to return data and it seemed pretty locked in to the use cases that Ambient had created for it; I have no need to constantly (or really ever) monitor stock data in real-time, for example. But it was an interesting idea in theory, and one which has never really gone away.

The most obvious example of a passive info display is a traditional clock face, with hour, minute and second hands. Most people on Earth can simply glance at a clock and instantly recognize what time it is — maybe not down to the precise second, but close enough for government work, as the old saying goes. Clocks are both ambient and precise interfaces, of course; if you look at the clock for more than a second you can determine the precise time — by “drilling down” past the “macro” interface (i.e. the general geometric configuration of the clock hands) and focusing on the “micro” interface (the second hand and the numbers).

A more modern example, in my opinion, are the icon “badges” that appear in Apple’s iOS (and, to a lesser extent, in Dock icons in their main MacOS X). The badge overlaid on the Mail icon, for example, shows you how many unread emails you have. But it also functions as a simple binary indicator: if it’s there, you have unread mail. Again, you drill down by focusing on the number inside the icon, which is the actual number of unread emails.

This is all very fine and dandy, but I started thinking about one of the basic underlying assumptions in both ambient information and in augmented reality: namely, that the primary interface ought to be visual.

In our everyday lives, at least for the non-deaf, sound is our most often-used tool for passively gathering information about the state of our environment. We listen to the world as much as we look at it. And my own experience suggests that my own brain is better at setting audio to a lower cognitive priority than vision, while still paying continuous partial attention to it.

I suspect this is true of most humans: this is why it is illegal (at least in America) to put a video player in front of the driver in a motor vehicle, but car radios have been with us since around 1930. You can listen to This American Life and simultaneously perform the complex mental gymnastics required to drive a car without killing yourself or anybody else…but very, very few of us could watch TAL’s companion TV series on an LCD screen above our dashboard and make it more than a mile or two without ending up in a ditch. I’m sure there’s a well-documented neurological reason for this, but I’m gonna just skip the Googling here and say with confidence: humans are better at passively monitoring audio than vision.

Musician/artist/producer Brian Eno discovered this in 1975, when he was laid up in bed after being hit by a car. As he explains it in the liner notes to Discreet Music, the album that essentially launched the “ambient” music genre:

In January this year I had an accident. I was not seriously hurt, but I was confined to bed in a stiff and static position. My friend Judy Nylon visited me and brought me a record of 18th century harp music. After she had gone, and with some considerable difficulty, I put on the record. Having laid down, I realized that the amplifier was set at an extremely low level, and that one channel of the stereo had failed completely. Since I hadn’t the energy to get up and improve matters, the record played on almost inaudibly. This presented what was for me a new way of hearing music – as part of the ambience of the environment just as the colour of the light and the sound of the rain were parts of that ambience. It is for this reason that I suggest listening to the piece at comparatively low levels, even to the extent that it frequently falls below the threshold of audibility.

This gave Eno the impetus to create “make a piece that could be listened to and yet could be ignored… perhaps in the spirit of Satie who wanted to make music that could ‘mingle with the sound of the knives and forks at dinner.'”

And yet, despite the obvious advantage of auditory interfaces, most ambient information interfaces are still visual displays, like the Ambient Orb. (One notable exception is in-car GPS, which usually uses some sort of celebrity voice to give you ambiguous directions.) And, so far as I am aware, the bulk of  augmented reality tools — which, by overlaying data onto our real environment, are a sort of cousin of ambient displays — use audio sparingly, if at all.

In these use cases, audio simply makes more sense in these contexts. For another thing, playing and even manipulating audio in real time is far less power and CPU intensive than rendering graphics in real time, which is why the iPhone can serve as a perfectly serviceable guitar stomp box.

Imagine, for example, a simple navigation system for a mobile device that directed you towards your destination via the simple means of adjusting the balance and volume of the music playing via your audio player. The sound is “centered” when you’re facing your destination directly; turn right and the music grows louder in your left ear and vice versa. The closer you are to your destination, the louder the music plays. Such a system would require no engagement at all by the user; the mobile device could remain safe in the user’s pocket for the duration of their journey. It’s an incredibly intuitive and simple interface to a fairly complex computational system.

(Of course, such an interface would be rather annoying on its face for someone who was simply trying to listen to their tunes, but it gives an example of one modality for such a tool.)

Talking to Yiying, I was reminded of an old idea of mine: an entirely musical social network based on generative music created via musical “DNA”. Think about how music discovery apps like Pandora work: each song is weighed against a set of criteria, such as “slow/fast” “exciting/mournful”, etc. Each track’s particular set of traits serves as its musical “chromosomes” so to speak.

So imagine that you sign up for this network and feed it your Pandora or playlists. It analyzes your music and creates a new music for you: a sort of personalized, endlessly generated, changing score: your theme music.

Your theme music plays over your mobile device as you navigate through the world — ambient music, as easily ignored as paid attention to. Now, imagine you walk by someone else using this notional network — someone else with their own theme music.

As you pass them, some magic wireless technology (Bluetooth, near field communications or something powered by unobtanium) triggers off. It randomly merges your musical DNA with theirs, and your theme music is subtly altered by your encounter with them, and vice versa, incorporating elements of their musical genes.

This wouldn’t be limited to people, either. Buildings, landmarks, communities, even the time of day — your theme could be endlessly modified by the very landscape you walk through. Over time, your music would become a product of your encounters, your experiences, your movements. (Of course, this is true anyway of anybody’s music collection, in a metaphorical sense. But in this case it would be literal.) You could “follow” people based upon the grooviness of their personal soundtrack.

This is one — admittedly slightly silly — example of an auditory augmented reality. But there are more practical and practicable variations on this as well. I’d love to see more people think about and embrace the potential of auditory ambient/AR systems as they become more widely-used and prevalent in the UI/UX community.

Ten Years On

I’m going to write about something I’ve never really written about before.

I had just moved back to Las Vegas, to my parents’ house, after a disastrous stint in Seattle. I had ended up homeless up there as a result of a lot of bad craziness, most of it mine. I’d ended up sitting in a place called Café Minnie on Broadway in Capitol Hill, eating a bowl of soup the kind night manager had given me for free, and I’d decided that if I could just get out of this I’d never end up in this situation again.

(And I didn’t. Mostly.)

I’d only been back for a few days. I’d been sleeping on an old futon mattress on the floor of my parents’ storage room, and I’d been having fitful, frightened dreams. But if I dreamed the night of September 10th, 2001, I do not remember it. I only remember waking up early the next morning to my mother, banging loudly on my door.

I had a headache, I remember that; the banging pulled me out of sleep disoriented and confused in the dark; I hadn’t been back long enough to entirely realize where I was. My mom opened the door.

“Someone flew a plane into the World Trade Center. We’re under attack.”

“What?” I mumbled. It was hard to process what she said. “Come watch the news,” she said, and vanished from the door. I shook my head. Someone what? How was that an attack? I thought she meant somebody’d flown a small plane into the ground at the WTC, something like that.

I walked out of my room into the living room, where my parents had CNN on. My dad was home from work that morning for some reason, and I sat down and looked at the footage — a pillar of smoke rising from the side of the tower.

“What do you mean, under attack?” I asked her. “It’s just a plane crash.”

“They’re saying it was deliberate,” she said. My mom looked really frightened. But I still wasn’t fully awake, didn’t fully comprehend what I was seeing–

And then I watched as the second plane hit the second tower.

It was the first and only time in my life that shock took the strength from my legs. I fell against the wall and slid down it. In that moment, I knew — I knew — that things had changed.

I had the strongest and strangest sensation I’ve ever felt in my life: that I’d fallen asleep in one universe and woken up in a parallel reality, one where people flew planes into buildings. I kept thinking I was going to wake up — again, a cliche of fiction that I’d never actually experienced, and never have since. This wasn’t real. This wasn’t real. It wasn’t real when I saw people jumping from the buildings, something that will haunt me until the day I die. That choice: the fire or the drop? The Pentagon. The collapse of the buildings, all those people running down the street to escape that great cloud of dust and ash, their screams so loud it made the microphones on the TV cameras clip and distort. It wasn’t real.

Do you remember that day? Were you still in school, then? Were you already an adult? You remember where you were. Sure you do. Everybody remembers where they were on September 11th, 2001, the way people of my generation remember where they were on January 28th, 1985, the way my mother’s generation remembers where they were when John and Robert Kennedy were shot, Martin Luther King, John Lennon. You don’t forget because these are the days when the world changed, or at least our understanding of how it worked.

If you remember that day, you remember that most Americans had no idea what was going on. We didn’t know if this was the beginning of a larger coordinated attack. The people on the news — most of whom, I remember, were in tears at this point — said that nobody knew what the next target was. The Pentagon had been hit, but there was talk of Los Angeles, the Sears Tower…the Stratosphere in Las Vegas.

At the time, I was writing for the Las Vegas Mercury, an alt-weekly which has since gone extinct. I didn’t have a car and I didn’t have a cell phone, but I knew I had to find out what was going on. So I borrowed my mother’s cell and hopped on a bus to the Strip.

I got off at the corner of Sahara and Las Vegas Boulevard, in the shadow of the Stratosphere. I expected to see panic, cops, maybe military vehicles in the street. Instead, I saw a regular day in Vegas: tourists walking up and down with their Yards O’ Beer as if nothing had happened. It made no sense to me at all — didn’t these people know what had happened?

I crossed the street and headed for the Stratosphere, expecting it to be blocked off. It wasn’t. What the fuck? The news kept saying Vegas was a target, and the Stratosphere was easily the highest profile target in the city. But the doors were open, taxis were pulling up, people were milling in and out.

It didn’t occur to me until later that most of these people — out and about on vacation, playing slots in casinos where even the outside light was carefully filtered, much less news about the outside world — probably really didn’t know yet what had happened.

But I did, and so I did something which I like to think of as being reasonably brave and which was probably simple, base stupidity on my part: I walked into the Stratosphere.

It may have seemed business as usual from the outside, but on the inside there were FBI SWAT types in paramilitary uniforms cordoning off the entrance to the tower itself. (If you’re not familiar; the Stratosphere Hotel/Casino lies directly underneath the Stratosphere tower itself. It’s as if you built the Seattle Space Needle on top of a Hilton.) It was scary to see guys with M-16s in a casino. And yet, astoundingly, most of the people at the machines weren’t even looking at them. They were still playing their slots. There were a few gawkers, but not many. I think most people were afraid to lose their seat, or didn’t want to cash out their credit on the machines.

I wasn’t wearing a press badge. I was probably in jeans and a t-shirt; I looked like any other tourist. And so I didn’t stand out to the two men engaged in intense conversation near me — one in a suit, one in paramilitary gear. I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that the guy in the suit was a Stratosphere floor manager and the guy in the jumpsuit was some kind of supervising FBI officer.

It’s been ten years since I surreptitiously listened to that conversation, and I didn’t record it; but the gist was that Mr. FBI was telling Mr. Stratosphere that he needed to get all of these people out of here, like right now, and Mr. Stratosphere was explaining that he couldn’t do it. People wouldn’t get up and leave their credits on their slot machines and their chips on the table. After this exchange, the two of them drifted away, and I watched the other guys in jumpsuits going up the stairs to the tower elevators with their guns drawn. They were clearly on edge.

I honestly believed — and, in retrospect, had every right to believe — that at any moment a plane might go into that tower or a bomb might go off, bringing the entire 1150 foot thing down onto the Strip below. I don’t think I was ever quite so terrified in my life. But fuck it, right? I had to know.

But nothing happened. No bombs went off, no planes came crashing in. After a while I wandered off down the Strip to try and get a sense of what was going on.

As I walked, I went up to random tourists and told them what had happened — that the World Trade Center had been destroyed by hijacked planes, that there was a strong possibility the country was under attack by an unknown enemy.

Most of them didn’t give a shit. I remember one couple said “Well, that’s terrible, but we’re here to have fun.” People didn’t know and didn’t care even when they found out. It surprised me back then; it wouldn’t surprise me now.

The only tourists I saw who seemed to really get what was happening was an old Scottish couple who had actually been watching CNN in their room. They told me that they were stuck in Vegas, as all the flights had been grounded. Of course, as I learned later, they weren’t the only ones; thousands of people were stuck in Vegas for several days, most of them past the end of their hotel reservations, and the hotels had no choice but to give them free rooms.

I walked the whole length of the Strip that day, and watched the news coverage into the night. The next day, September 12th, I went to Cafe Roma and sat with my friends watching more news on a small portable TV. That night I went to my friend Heather’s apartment and stood on the balcony with my friends and saw something I’d never seen before and, in all likelihood, will never see again: an American sky without a single airplane in it. The world was silent that night.

Ten years, man. Ten years in this other world, this other timeline. I still feel like there’s a world where 9/11 never happened, just on the other side of reality’s thin canvas; a world where Bush never won a second term, where the vicious excesses of the Noughties never happened. Or maybe they would have happened in a different way. Maybe they were inevitable. But the hopeful part of me thinks not; hopes that the bad craziness, the greed and paranoia of the last decade, was a reaction to the horror that properly kicked it off.

I still remember how it felt to stand in that casino surrounded by the flashing lights and chirping of the slot machines and be aware, in every cell of my body, that I might be standing in an execution chamber. It sounds dramatic in retrospect, but it didn’t feel dramatic at the time. If nothing else seemed real that day, that feeling of death rushing at me like a freight train felt real enough.

And maybe I wasn’t so wrong, at that.

Five of the nineteen hijackers were in Vegas before the attacks; in point of fact, they used Cyberzone, the cybercafe above my hangout Cafe Roma, as their base of communications. I know I must’ve sat next to them in Roma or Cyberzone, maybe said hi to them in passing. My friends certainly did; in the week after the attacks, the FBI swarmed Roma and took accounts from several people.

Ironically, at the time, most of my friends used Cyberzone to play multi-player games of Counterstrike; when you walked in there, amidst the digitized sounds of machine gun fire, you’d hear a voice announce whenever a round had ended: The terrorists have won. The terrorists have won.

I am convinced and have been since that day that their presence in Vegas wasn’t random or coincidental. And based on what I saw in the Stratosphere that day, I’ve always thought there was a fair-to-middling chance that the Feds found something up in that tower, and kept it quiet. Vegas relies on tourism, after all…and if tourists thought that jihadis were putting bombs in the casinos, this town would die a quick and excruciating death.

I don’t know. I don’t have any proof. And it doesn’t matter, ten years down the road, I guess. Trying to sort out the truth and the lies of 9/11 is a Herculean process that will engage historians for a hundred years. I don’t care about any of it, anymore.

When I think of 9/11 now, I think of the people jumping. That’s what I remember. Because I can’t imagine making that choice. No, that’s not true, that’s not why I’m haunted; I’m haunted because I can imagine making it. And now, at 33, I can imagine it a lot better than I could at 23. I know more about death now. If 9/11 happened today, when I am a married man, when I have seen people die in front of me with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have gone into that casino. I would be too afraid.

And I’m lying, a bit here: the other memory I have of 9/11, the better memory, is of the days afterward, when we all seemed to pull together. I remember that feeling that, for once, we were all in this together, every American. It didn’t last — and as history has shown, it wasn’t really true even at the time — but it felt true. It felt real. It was hope in a dark moment, and it was important.

This week people are going to be waving the flag and the signs that say NEVER FORGET; as if we who lived through that day need those signs, as if we would or could forget it. We all live in the shadows of the Twin Towers now. Every time another American soldier falls in Iraq or Afghanistan, every time a bitter young man whose family died in our occupation slips into his first jihadi meeting, every time another one of our core freedoms is eroded in the name of some notional security, we are in that shadow, and I wonder how long it will be before we can ever get free.

And so, ten years on, the memory of 9/11 I choose to cling to is the memory of that togetherness. In the end, when foolish wars and dollar diplomacy fail, it is that and nothing else which may ultimately save us from the dark.

Breakfast Dog

If you’ve ever thought to yourself “Man, my arteries are way too clear and free-flowing,” this is your meal.

  • 1 hot dog
  • 1 bun
  • 1 strip of bacon
  • 1 egg
  • 2 slices of cheese
  • 1 hot dog bun

Wrap bacon strip in a spiral around hot dog, covering as much of it as possible. Use a toothpick to keep bacon firmly wrapped around hot dog.

Place hot dog and bacon onto grill. Cook until bacon is thoroughly, crisply fried and hot dog is cooked all the way through.

Place egg in pan on medium high heat. Scramble egg and cook until no longer runny.

Place cheese slices into hot dog bun. Place eggs on top of cheese. Cheese will melt.

Place bacon-wrapped hot dog onto eggs. Garnish with ketchup or salsa. Eat immediately.

You’re welcome.

Tully Goes Down To The Docks

So, I’ve released a new track for sale on Bandcamp, entitled “Tully Goes Down To The Docks”.

It’s priced at a minimum of $1.00, but you can pay whatever you think it’s worth.

This piece (arranged for toy piano and strings with some digital effects) is one of my generative pieces, meaning it’s entirely composed using software algorithms within Ableton Live. While I’ve made several of these before, this is the first one I’ve really felt comfortable charging for, because I think it’s really good. It’s emotionally evocative and warm, and extremely atmospheric; I’m reminded of a film soundtrack. Hence the title, “Tully Goes Down To The Docks”, which doesn’t actually mean anything. It just sounded like the score for the part of the (non-existent) movie where…well…where Tully goes down to the docks.

The process for creating one of these pieces can take anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. This one took me about an hour. I created multiple tracks in Live and added looping MIDI clips to them. Each clip consists of just a middle C note, playing a rhythm — eighth notes, sixteenth notes, quarter notes, whole notes, either regular repeating or in some rhythmic pattern. Then I load in the Random MIDI plugin, which randomizes the playback notes. Then I add the Scale plugin, which forces the randomized notes into a scale (in this case, C major).

So the clip sends the middle C note, which is then randomized and then quantized (by being forced up or down) into a harmonic scale, and then sent to Propellerheads Reason, my soft synth environment. In this case, there are three Reason instruments: a toy piano, a solo marcato cello and a string section. The returned audio from Reason is sent to a granular synthesis Max for Live plugin called Hadron, which provides some really interesting (if subtle) sonic texturing, and a whole hell of a lot of reverb.

Once it’s all mixed the way I like it (including mastering but, in this case, no compression, as I wanted it to have extremely wide dynamic range), it’s done. I save the file and go to “Render Audio/Video” in Live’s file menu.

The length of the piece is arbitrary, but in this case I cheated a bit: I manually brought in each track at the beginning and then took them out one by one at the end. The entire track runs 128 measures (or 8:36 seconds). Every time I play the track (or render it out in Ableton Live) it’s different; this recorded version is one of an infinite number of variations on a theme.

I could, in theory, create a custom variation for every single person who bought the track, and I’m considering doing that for the next generative piece I do. It’d be interesting: you would own the only copy of your “version” of the song. No two would ever be exactly alike. It’s a different way of thinking about the idea of recorded music — one that’s really only practically possible with this particular form of composition and recording. (In purely digital music, the two are basically the same.)

I hope you like it. I really do. And enough people have bought it that I think it’s probably worth doing a possible entire album of these pieces!

Far Gone And Out: Chapter One

A man walks down the street
It’s a street in a strange world
Maybe it’s the Third World
Maybe it’s his first time around
Doesn’t speak the language
He holds no currency
He is a foreign man
He is surrounded by the sound, sound
Of cattle in the marketplace
Scatterlings in orphanages
He looks around, around
He sees angels in the architecture
Spinning in infinity
He says ‘Amen!’ and ‘Hallelujah!’
–Paul Simon

Every morning, Martin Judith wakes up in his dingy room in a wretched ethnic ghetto on the planet O, which is the center of all power in the galaxy, opens his narrow window and crawls out onto the wide window sill that he thinks of ironically as a balcony, and sits and drinks coffee as Chanel Number Five rains down on him in a fine mist.

It’s not real coffee, of course. It’s called flej-ja-tini in the patois of the Hydrocarbon Ghetto, and downtown they call it muh. Not coffee from a coffee bean, the arabica cappucinoa or whatever the fuck the Latin name is. But it’s dark and it’s hot and it has precisely the same effect on Martin’s nervous system as a venti-triple-bypass of Americano from the Starbucks on Market Street does, so he thinks of it as coffee.

Nor is it Chanel Number Five that coats Martin in a molecule-thin layer of sweet-smelling moisture every morning. It’s just more weirdness, some quirk of planetary macroweather. High in the stratosphere of O are clouds made of some ratio of water and alcohol, and when the sun hits them every morning, the water evaporates and the alcohol comes falling down and gets impregnated somehow with an organic compound in the lower clouds that smells exactly like attar of roses. It falls and falls, and it lands on Martin, and then it evaporates itself, the way aerosolized alcohol tends to do, and it leaves him smelling like Marilyn Monroe. And also his wife Suzanne, who has been dead for four years now, which is not the reason that Martin will admit to himself he does this little ritual every morning.

He pretends to himself that he’s letting the alcohol soak into his not-coffee, and also that bathing in naturally-occurring perfume mist is free, whereas an apartment with an actual shower costs money. More than he makes in his pathetic job.

Martin Judith sips his flej-ja-tini and tries not to consciously think of his wife, while simultaneous trying to subconsciously comforthimself with the olfactory memory of her and the bottle of Chanel Number Five he bought her on the occasion of their first anniversary, and when the rain stops and the coffee runs dry he heads back inside to get dressed and start his day.


* * *

Jehsayteh the food vendor is already set up with a line of customers when Martin comes bounding out of his apartment building. He gets in the queue right before an irritable looking Mang, who looks him up and down and flicks its headwings at him contemptuously.

“Fuck off, Tinkerbell,” Martin says. Despite spending eight of the last ten years living in the city of San Francisco, on the planet Earth, he still has a bit of the accent of Northern England, where he was born and raised. Despite this, when he gives the Mang the finger, it’s only the one American finger, not the British V. “First come, first serve.”

The Mang just buzzes at him. But what’s it going to do? It may be eight feet tall, but it’s built like a praying mantis and probably weighs all of about a hundred pounds, even with its armored and oversized cranium and the iridescent wings that dangle from it. Besides, it’s not looking for a street fight. Nobody looks for a street fight in the Ghettos. Street fights mean cops, and cops mean Show me your ID token, you immigrant scumbag, and anyway three Mangs got deported last week for some kind of credit scam.

“Deportation” means the same thing out here in the Universe that it does on Earth: the cops take you to the border and throw you over it. But O is an ecumenopolis, a city-state that covers the entire surface of its planet, and in this case, the border is legally defined as the edge of the atmosphere. So the Mang scammers got taken up to low orbit and kicked out of a fucking airlock. Martin doesn’t spare them much pity; he’s always been fairly confident that he’s not racist, but he can’t help thinking the Mang are just kind of a creepy species, and their music irritates the piss out of him, and besides, they’re a hive mind or something, so they barely even register three dogsbodies doing the Vacuum Mambo.

He reaches the front of the line and Jehsayteh grunts a greeting at him. Jehsayteh is an amphibian from some backwater, and he’s kind of like a walrus and kind of like a frog, with those weird rectangular-pupiled eyes. He sits in a gigantic plastic bucket filled with swampy water behind his food cart.

Martin holds up three fingers. “I want to have…[er, shit, uh]…three of meat sphere…to please?” he says in his halting Standard, with a bit of English thrown in. Jehsayteh bounces up and down in his water, which Martin has come to understand is his way of laughing. But he’s already ladling three large meatballs and a bunch of sauce into a paper bowl, which he slides across to Martin.

“You’re getting better,” he says in Standard, slowly and over-enunciating, but his tone is friendly.

Martin nods. “I…trying? Trying, yes,” he says. He waves his cred at the cart, which beeps.

“Keep it up,” Jehsayteh says, and waves the next customer forward.

Martin takes his meatballs down the hill from his street to the waterfront, where the bus comes. He sits on a low wall overlooking the harbor and eats, tipping his head back and knocking the meatballs into his mouth like the jelly balls at the bottom of a glass of bubble tea.

He’s been here for six months now, he’s pretty sure, and he’s finally starting to get Standard. As languages go, he’s pretty sure it’s not complicated; after all, it has to get spoken by what seems like an infinite variety of species with a definitely infinite variety of ways of communicating. It’s probably no harder in actuality to learn than the German he picked up when he was backpacking in Bavaria back in the early 90s. The difference was that in Bavaria he could stop at any tourist shop and pick up an English/German phrasebook. There are no English/Standard phrasebooks.

As far as Martin knows, he’s one of two people within a few hundred light years of here who speaks English, or even knows that English or England or Earth exists, and the other one is an alcoholic counterfeiter who can’t be bothered to make himself useful, or to pay for his own drinks for that matter.

So he’s stuck trying to figure out the language by inference and guesswork and pointing at things until some kind soul feels sorry for him and says what it’s called. He feels like even more of a fucking idiot than he did in Bavaria back in the day, trying to suavely pick up sexy German girls with his halfwit’s tourist German.

It’s ironic: in San Francisco, he’d gotten used to Americans acting as if his every Anglophonic syllable was somehow saturated with sophistication and grace — this despite the fact that his family were working class thugs whose taste for a good union picket line riot was only surpassed by their predilection for finding City fans in back alleys and using their faces to clean the gravel out of the soles of their Doc Martens. But as far as the Yanks are concerned, he might as well be Martin fucking Windsor, Lord Scunsthorpe-Upon-Scunthorpeshire. It took him a long way in California; got him a proper degree in art history and a nice little gallery in SoMA with a respectable Silicon Valley clientele and a loft in North Beach whose square footage could actually be expressed in four figures.

And none of that matters now. On O — or in O, whatever the right preposition for a planet-city is — here, he’s a nearly-mute idiot. He doesn’t speak enough Standard to get a job working in an art gallery, much less running one. Even if he could find a female of a species he was both a) attracted to and b) biologically compatible with, he can’t ask her out without sounding like he’s gotten a recent worrying blow to the head.

In fact, in his current situation, Martin is about as marginalized as is possible. Even shady weirdos like the Mang have families and cultural cliques and obscure religious celebrations and music. (Terrible, terrible music.) Whenever any ethnic group finds itself the minority in a hostile place, it immediately bands together and insulates and self-protects and starts pumping out really good food.

Not Martin. He’s an ethnic minority of one. There isn’t anybody else here that he can sit with in a bar and reminisce about the glories of The Sopranos, no cousins he can invite over for a proper British curry or even a Mission District barbacoa burrito, no friends with whom he can serenade the glory of good old planet Earth with a good old fashioned drunken rendition of “Don’t Stop Believin'”.

He is alone, and nearly mute, and extremely aware of his status as an illegal and undocumented — if unwilling — immigrant.

And so he makes his living doing the one job that any illiterate, incompetent, drug-addicted maniac in the universe can always do, for just enough money to not end up in a cardboard box or giving handjobs to obese reptilian religious fanatics in back alleyways. Not that he’s done that, or considered doing it for more than five minutes at a time.

Martin finishes his meatballs and sauce and reminds himself again to ask Jehsayteh what the fuck his new favorite dish is actually made of, and then decides again that he probably doesn’t want to know. He takes a long look out at the harbor, where the shipping lanes to the other continent-districts of O lie adjacent to the massive spaceports and their loading docks. One of those big Partari freighters is coming down, parting the Chanel clouds like a fist through a curtain of gauze, its engine wake sending giant rippling waves across the ocean that crash into the breakwaters with sprays of ocean foam as big as houses that startle the bright red idiot gargoyles that sun themselves on the rocks and send them crying indignantly into the morning air.

Martin does not know that he’s smiling, but he thinks to himself: fuck, it could be worse. How in hell could you live without seeing that, even just once?

And then he’s gone into the commuter crowd that flows into the city subways like a river into an underground cavern, gravity driving it ever onward and down into the dark.