Our Retired Explorer

Stanford University recently released a PDF reprint of Time magazine’s 1981 profile of Michel Foucault, for free on the web. Admittedly having read very little Foucault, I have only two touchstones for really even thinking this was an interesting profile. One was my love for Umberto Eco’s novel “Foucault’s Pendulum” which has little if anything to do with the philosopher, and everything to do with the rotation of the earth. The second is to The Weakerthans‘ fantastic “Our retired explorer (dines with Michel Foucault in Paris, 1961)” off of their 2003 album “Reconstruction site.”

From the opening smash of chords, the two minutes and twenty-three seconds spent in this fever dream of a date between an old gruff explorer and an inscrutable philosopher, is a propulsive yell for the comforts of understanding between people. Naturally there’s some geeky post-modern fun happening in here too if you’re into that. As John K. Samson, vocalist, guitarist and songwriter for the band, explained in a 2003 interview with Epitaph the clash between the two worlds and the attempts at understanding are what is interesting and important.

However, in a different interview with Canadian magazine Maisonneuve, Samson gives the answer that sheds some light on the collision of these words in his pop song, and the silliness of the video below:

I must say that reading a cross-section of French postmodern stuff last year depressed me deeply, to the point that I didn’t want to do anything and stopped writing for awhile and had a big nihilistic mope. I think this was partly due to the fact that I don’t have a particularly scholastic mind. I refuse to be an anti-intellectual, and I hate the rolling of eyes people do when confronted with something difficult to interpret. The life of the mind is the only life I’m interested in. But still, I felt demoralized by how little I understood, and even more demoralized by what I did understand because I found it so depressing. I felt senile and left behind, like an Antarctic explorer–one of the last great and silly projects of modernity, before the world wars showed us total horror.

What gets me about this song, is the way Samson deals with the challenge of Foucault’s work, which could be any insurmountable obstacle someone faces, whether that is the Antarctic, philosophy or other people. The declaration of “Oh Antarctica!” at the end is a chant to return to the challenge you do understand, rather than dealing with the challenge currently being faced, as well as for the nostalgia of still being on the top of your game.

A Note on The Believer Magazine

The Believer 10th Anniversary Issue CoverA couple of weeks ago I gave a presentation on The Believer, which is a fabulous magazine that I cannot stop reading (and hope it never comes to that.) We stumbled into a discussion on the need of publications to glob onto the internet in any way possible to make money, increase circulation, become successful or at least survive.

After about 15 minutes of back and forth with the cohort, mostly due to my inability to articulate the function of a literary journal, the professor illuminated the situation to us as a generational divide. The publishing of literary journals is done for a specific audience who prefer or look for a type of writing to be held, read on paper, and published in a tangible object. Previous generations, and the old institutions they learned from, have a deep belief in the medium and the entangled habits of reading. For the current generation–the Millennials perhaps?–they grew up with words published on screens more than or at least on par with word published on paper. The internet is not only the primary source of text, but the only one necessary.

Continue reading

Working for the People: Lamees Dhaif

Last week I had the pleasure of sitting down with exiled Bahraini journalist, Lamees DhaifLamees Dhaif before she received the 2012 Tully award at Syracuse University.

She was an inspiring and informative speaker, encouraging her audience to be grateful for their rights, and to support those who struggle for the same freedoms, especially free speech.

Using social media, she continues to critique the Bahrain government and their constrictive policies. She’s been very successful, amassing over 100K followers on twitter alone.

You can read my recap of her visit and acceptance speech over at the S.I. Newhouse website, and the live tweet recap of the evening here.

Sing Along Song : Do It Anyway


The key takeaway from the Ben Folds Five video on their Pledge Music site, is that you’ll have a chance to live forever. Promising immortality in the form or a mention or a place on LP artwork, in essence is the dream of any die-hard fan. Take it from me, it is as close as anyone can get to being a part of their band without actually being Robert Sledge, Darrin Jessee, or Ben Folds. Which I’ll admit sounds pretty dang awesome. I’ll also admit my longstanding love for Ben Folds (though we’ve drifted apart lately) and his music, which I’ve discussed in the past.

Upon learning that Ben Folds Five would get back together, I was skeptical, as a number of my favorite bands from the late 90’s (No Doubt returns in September!) were coming back to perform or record new albums and some (At The Drive-In) were blatant cash-ins banking on nostalgia. What would a BF5 tour or album sound like today, and how much would it be like the BF5 I listened to through high school and beyond? Would I want it to sound the same as it did back then? If you can’t do anything new, what is even the point of playing again? What, in essence, do you think you’re doing? Continue reading

Spree Music with Me: Cults


Photo by Ben Pier

Lots of bands come to my ears from out of nowhere. Overflow bins, opening acts, snippets inside stores, restaurants, too-loud headphones, even the radio. Which is why where I end up stumbling over them tends to be so interesting. Cults is one of the few recent bands I can say I tripped over while listening to the (college) radio. So technically, they came out of thin air.
Or the sky.

The story of Cults begins with the assertion that they came out of nowhere at the tail end of 2010. As the months accumulated in 2011, it was learned that the duo hails from a couple of places where a number of bands are known to reside: New York City and 60s-era pop and rock. Cults articulate mixture of these places is what makes them so enthralling to hear, and so unique when compared to groups with similar influences.

Read the rest of the article on Buffalo Spree. While Elvis Costello helps me explain some of Cults’ sound, I think they’re radically different artists. Cults seems to take the idea of love to dark places, but still make it sunshine and brightness. While some of Costello’s late ’70’s and 80’s work exemplifies the duality that I think Cults is toying with, albeit writ large over each album. An old trick–saying one thing while meaning another–for sure, but an interesting way for both artists to explore saying it anew.

Enjoy a video of Costello’s 1978 performance of “Pump It Up” as an example, and for his glasses.

Spree Music with Me: John K. Samson

Photo by Jason Halstead

Perhaps I should change the title of these Spree posts to “Ostensibly Me” because it sounds like a pretty clever, if not pretentious way to explain the theme that’s been running through this year’s posts. That theme being how I have discovered music. While this article on John K. Samson doesn’t necessarily tackle that head on, it does touch on one of the first things I look for in a recording: lyricism. I fell head over heels in love with Samson’s wordplay when I first heard it, and it is no surprise that he surrounds himself with words, in the inverse way I surround myself with music.

Lyric writing is an interesting art, with some artists preferring to abstract the lyrics in nonsensical words, and others crafting pieces that work more like short stories. John K. Samson, best known in the U.S. as the lead singer for The Weakerthans, is a songwriter from the latter camp, for sure. He admits to being as much in a recent interview with The A.V. Club, and even calls himself a “thwarted short-story writer,” who has merely figured out how to cram a story into a “three-minute pop song.”

You can read the rest of this article over at Buffalo Spree, and watch Plea from a Cat Named Virtue, one of my favorite songs from The Weakerthans.

Spree Music with Me: The Lemonheads

The Lemonheads at Shepherds Bush Empire, September 2005, courtesy of Stuart Goodwin

The other way I come across music is by reading liner notes. So, if you’re paying attention (and you’re ostensibly me), that means you read liner notes, work at a radio station, and follow up on your references to find good music. Sounds kinda boring when its put like that. Anyway, that is, as I illustrate over at Buffalo Spree, how I found The Lemonheads.

The way I stumbled across The Lemonheads, as most of my musical discoveries occur, was due to another band, in this case it was the Continue reading

Sing Along Song : Slapped Actress

Back on the very first post that graced this space I talked about The Hold Steady. Specifically I talked about the transformative effect attending one of their shows had on me, as well as their mythology. Ever since I pulled Almost Killed Me out of the samples bin back in my undergrad days (seriously kids, work at a radio station and access good music), I’ve felt this band was shooting high, and trying to achieve the heights of rock and roll while still being the best bar band in the country. I think there was a point when The Hold Steady reach those heights, and that point is at the end of their 2008 LP Stay Positive. So when it was recently  suggested to me to stay positive, my first reaction was to reach for and listen to that album. That’s how my brain works. This is a disease.

“Slapped Actress” is the final track on Stay Positive, and it could be argued that with it, ends a certain phase of the band, partially due to the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay in 2010. But I digress. In 2008, lead singer Craig Finn did an interview over at Uncut, where he discussed (amongst other things) how “Slapped Actress” fits into the Continue reading

Spree Music with Me: Blitzen Trapper

That’s from Blitzen Trapper’s album Furr, the title track actually. I’ve got a whole nice write up over at Buffalo Spree about them, complete with a couple more videos.

Spree Music with Me: Ben Folds

I interviewed Ben Folds for Buffalo Spree. He was great, and I can’t believe how lucky I am to have met/interviewed so many of my favorite musicians.

Also, I feel this is an appropriate place to reveal that I still haven’t watched Almost Famous. So there’s that. And here’s a video of  “You Don’t Know Me” featuring Regina Spektor.

John Vanderslice, you’re next.