RL135 - Fire Was Always the Star

This week, Merlin and John talk about:

  • Vocal fry (Music)
  • Thrifting (Objects)
  • John looking at Italian climbing boots (Objects)
  • John getting his first spam text (Internet and Social Media)
  • Vintage sunglasses at the thrift store (Objects)
  • Road Warrior, Charlize Theron (Movies)
  • Follow-up: John thinking about getting a wooden spoon (Small Bag)
  • Learning a guitar lick from Eric Clapton on MTV (Music)
  • The water fountain story and remembering small stupid things (Early Days)
  • John doing crowd-control at a Dukakis event at Gonzaga (Early Days)

The Problem: 110/20 exposure, referring to Merlin remembering a film for the camera that he once was supposed to buy for his mom and he still remembers what it was called.

The show title refers to John being a pyromaniac when he was a child and when watching action movies with a lot of fire like Road Warrior, the fire was always the star of the movie for him.

It is so early!

Draft version
The segments below are drafts that will be incorporated into the rest of the Wiki as time permits.

Vocal fry (RL135)

Merlin had a little vocal fry when they were recording. John was never aware of vocal fry except as a subtle feeling of uncomfortableness until one time when he was standing outside a bar in Brooklyn and a young woman was talking to him. He had known her for a while and he was wondering what the matter with her was. She had changed and living in Brooklyn was no good for this person. She moved on in conversation to someone else and another friend walked up and said ”God, the vocal fry!” She had adapted it as an affectation, trying to make it in the big city and John had a visceral reaction to it without knowing what he was reacting to. As soon as he heard ”vocal fry” he understood immediately what it was although he had never heard the term before. She was speaking like her voice was a little frying pan, frying some bacon. All of a sudden John was hearing it everywhere and Stop It!

There is a movie called ”In A World…” by Lake Bell about a woman who is trying to break into the overwhelmingly male voice-over world. Her father was the king of voice-overs, she was really good and taught accents to people, and she was on Fresh Air together with Rob Corddry who plays her father. She talked through all of the annoying things that female voice artists are expected to be able to do, including the vocal fry and the baby voice.

Merlin and John are voice artists on this program, painting in obscenities, Hitler and snot. Fortunately they never had to describe their art ever as exploring the intersections between anything, which is one of the things that makes John put the brochure down and turn away from the gallery wall. He doesn’t want to explore intersections and he doesn’t want to do it on this program. Merlin thinks that especially in the Internet-related trades it is not uncommon to talk a whole lot about your philosophy before you ever actually made a thing, and about how the thing you are eventually going to produce is going to be the intersection between these two things. John hopes they have played some small role in encouraging young people to really put forth a philosophy before they ever make anything. A lot of work lacks a persuasive theory, as Tom Wolfe would say.

Thrifting (RL135)

Lately John tried to put a moratorium on thrifting and chill out for a little while. He had found a whole series of old tiles, each having a crest of a different province in Czechoslovakia, that he had to own because they were like the checkerboard Griffin of Moravia. He got them home and realized he decorated his house like a Bierstube and he doesn’t even drink beer. He told himself to not go to thrift-stores anymore, but all of a sudden he was lying in bed scanning eBay on his fucking phone at 3am. What he didn’t have was Italian climbing boots or silk pajamas. He does have a lot of cotton pajamas and he doesn’t wear pajamas but he has cotton pajamas because he feels like they needed to be archived.

John looking at Italian climbing boots (RL135)

John was looking at Italian climbing boots on eBay and got all excited, but he doesn’t know enough about Italian climbing boots and researching them lead him to sites where men are talking to one another about their clothes and their fashion. Merlin wouldn’t know anything about this because he tucks his dad-jeans into his socks to keep the skeeters out.

John was reading message boards where guys said that they bought a pair of Italian climbing boots and they found that an 11.5 is actually closer to a 12. Then John got bootsplained to by 1000 guys and he has no way of telling whether these guys are 65 year old former mountain climbers or 22 year old people who live on the other side (?). Also, at 4am his judgement is impaired. He has an iPad right next to him on the bed stand, but he is not doing it on the iPad, but on his phone, scanning these little message boards, researching some esoterica. Invariably somebody said that J-Crew has a really good set of re-issued Italian mountain climbing boots. John actually did get some boots, but they weren’t Italian climbing boots.

John getting his first spam text (RL135)

Even though it is against everything he stands for, John recently tried to look at something on the J-Crew website and they wanted him to log in. He was alone, he was vulnerable, he was a little impaired, he was a little sad, he was longing for information and he entered his information into the J-Crew website. Now he had an account and was logged in and realized that the website was just an elaborate shell-game. It was the actual J-Crew site, but when he clicked all the way through to the end-game, they said ”Sorry, sold out! Would you like to see another thing that isn’t anything like it?” John wondered why he did this, logged off, washed his hands and scrubbed them really hard. That was a bad experience!

As he woke up the next day there was spam in his email from some clothing company. Fucking J-Crew! Did they sell him down the river that fast? Two days later John got a freaking text that Michael Kors is having a huge sale on long underpants. John didn’t even put his phone number in this thing! Merlin doesn’t think it is related because there are so many disturbing and sad ways that thing could not be related. Merlin received at least eight emails from them when he bought exactly one item.

There are good mailing lists in the world that are worth signing up for and people will send you informative things every day, but Merlin has never intentionally asked a vendor to email him about anything ever. In fact he scans the page for the place where he can click the dingus to say he doesn’t want to get the emails. Even still, if you buy things from third parties on Amazon, they will send them your information, and he still gets stuff about something he bought 3 years ago.

John's spam text was very long and had lots of emojis, like stars, happy faces and snowflakes, telling him that there were special offers for Michael Kors products. John assumes he is a clothes designer, but he is not familiar with his work. When he sees the name of a fashion designer, he generally puts about half of it in the place in his brain where he catalogs things to hate, and the other half in the part of the brain like ”What if I am on a cocktail party and I meet this guy?" John should better have some familiarity that this guy is a fashion designer so he doesn’t walk up to him and says ”I loved your show!” All the great fashion shows!

Merlin asks John to watch out for a text involving discounted prices on premium brand sunglasses, which everybody has been getting for the last year. About every week or two he gets a text telling him that he has been matched with TV shows starring Denis Leary, auditions are approaching soon and it pays $842 a day. Those are all Las Vegan 702 phone numbers! They know Merlin’s name and text his Google Voice number. If John got a text like that he would be ”Finally! De Niro asked for me by name! Tell me more!” The problem is that the scams today are very complex and Merlin thinks that the most important thing is that you respond, but all it does is prove that your account works.

Vintage sunglasses at the thrift store (RL135)

John has noticed that thrift stores now almost universally recognize the value of their vintage sunglasses. John would find Ray Bans by the bucket load for $0.99 at the Goodwill and they were oblivious to them, but the other day he saw a pair of Ray Bans under the glass for $99. They are not that much more new with a case!

Road Warrior, Charlize Theron (RL135)

They shortly make references to the movie Glengarry Glen Ross. John suspects that nobody is listening to this program who hasn’t seen that movie 100 times, but Merlin thinks it is safe to say that their listeners have not seen it as many times as he has watched it. It is a short film you can watch in 90 minutes. For some young people out there it is really hard to know what they have seen and haven’t seen. They know all the words to ”What the Fox Said”, but they have never seen a Hitchcock film.

John has seen a trailer about a Road Warrior reboot that people were talking about on Twitter. Road Warrior was one of the real foundational artworks in John’s canon. Merlin has never seen it, because in 1981 he was mostly masturbating and throwing saving throws. John’s dad took him to see it although it was rated R and John was 12 years old. The movie was graphically violent and there was every kind of violence, but there was a lot of fire in that movie, which was very exciting to John as a pyromaniac. It was at an age when fire was always the star of any film when it appeared on the screen. The movie had all the ingredients, like Red Dawn post-apocalyptic lawlessness, cool outfits, big guns, cars, people with neat hair, lots of quotable lines, foreign accents, fast driving and dangerous behavior. This movie resonated with John and he has seen it 1000 times.

Interestingly, when John found out that Charlize Theron was in the remake, it did not turn him against it right away. There were 400 actresses that could have been cast in that movie and 390 of them would have turned John against it immediately, but of all the actresses she is in that small group of people that John believes can pull it off. She is an actress who is willing to make herself ugly in for her role, she is very funny, and very self-effacing. John has not seen Between Two Ferns because that show is a little close to home. She has a real physicality and there are a lot of things in which John could see her as the proto-humungous, taking over the film.

John watched the trailer and it is one of these movies where a car gets into an accident and the tire comes off the car and instead of bouncing across the dessert it comes straight at the camera and then you see the tire treads on it as it goes by, there is super slow-mo, things blowing up, implausible car-wrecks, cars are tumbling 40 times and in the space of that somebody slides out the window, manages to walk across the ground, pick up the car keys, get back in the rolling car, and they open the glove box while the car is still rolling. Just "Fuck you!" 1000 million times!

People are really excited about it. They are also really excited about Star Wars, but John doesn’t share their enthusiasm. He might just have turned a really important corner in old-man-ness and you can picture him in a giant Shawl Collar Cardigan Sweater, angrily slamming a book. He is basically the French Father in Munich, chopping up some shallots, like ”You could have been my son!” NPR dad.

Follow-up: John thinking about getting a wooden spoon (RL135)

In RL133 it sounded like as soon as they hung up the Skype call John would walk outside and buy a wooden fork and spoon. Someone on Twitter made them aware of a thought technology they were missing by asking John why he won’t simply get chop sticks. What the hell has John been doing and why is he not already carrying chopsticks all the time? You can use them for 1000 applications! Next time John is around a fire and people offer him some stew, see what response he will get when he will say that he doesn’t have a fork, but he has these chop sticks that turn into a pen.

There is a classic scene in the movie Road Warrior where the titular road warrior Mad Max opens a can of dog food. He has an Australian shepherd dog and as a 13-year old viewer in 1981 you will think that he is going to feed his dog, but he pulls out a fork from inside his leather costume and starts eating the dog food, which was maybe as shocking a thing as any of the deaths or dismemberments that you see in the film.

We have seen so much gross stuff in the 30 years since then that we forget that there was a time when something like that would really put you off your lunch, like Kevin Costner drinking his pee in Waterworld, which John didn’t see because he follows the adage of the director who said ”Never direct a film on water”, which sounds like Wallace Shawn in Princess Bride, but it was before that. ”Never fight a land war in Asia”, ”Never go up against a Sicilian when death is on the line.” - ”The clubs of insanity!” (quote Princess Bride).

Mad Max eating the dog food is the moment when the film blows up in your mind. They are not just driving around in the dessert and without there being any police, but it truly is the end times because he is eating a can of dog food. It is a good example of ”show, don’t tell” Today you would get a 4-paragraph crawl with a voice-over and some spreading news bits, but in this movie they show that scene and you know that shit got real.

As Mad Max is eating that can of dog food, the dog is watching him, licking his lips, and also the gyro captain is watching him, reaches into his gyro captain costume and pulls out a wooden mixing spoon that is heavily used. ”show, don’t tell!” The world double / triple explodes because you realize that every single person in this world is carrying an eating-utensil in his coat. The gyro captain has chosen a wooden mixing spoon not because it is the best tool, but it is the tool he found.

This film was owning John as a 13-year old and it was the beginning of his feeling that he always should have an eating utensil. The question is if you are a road warrior who has a fucking fork, a gyro captain who has a mixing spoon or a smart-ass on Twitter who has chop-sticks. John should have a little leather toolkit that he unrolls with a spoon, a fork, and chop sticks. It could be his daily carry. It is a thing where people show you what they have in their pocket. John’s daily carry is his phone.

Brian May did the music for Mad Max II, which is very evocative. There is a tape called the Hot Licks where Brian May slowly teaches you how to play Bohemian Rhapsody.

Learning a guitar lick from Eric Clapton on MTV (RL135)

One time around 1981 John was watching an interview with Eric Clapton on MTV, this was before John had the realization that there was something dead inside of Eric Clapton (Merlin was drinking some water and almost choked on it because he had to start to laugh).

It was before the ”It is in the way that you use it” (from the album August) There was a good song on that record and some of John’s friends actually went to see him on that tour, but John didn’t go, it was the era when 1960s Rock Stars in their 40s appeared on stage with a mullet and with leather dusters as part of their costuming, all coming out of the woodwork with a more palatable version of something they had done in the 1960s and 1970s. These guys were still feeling pretty relevant and John is in his 40s now and if he had been more successful when he was young, he could now slack off like they did.

Eric Clapton was talking to Martha Quinn about his guitar playing and he had a guitar in his hand. John pushed "record" on their Beta Max player with the tape he kept in there to record all the bikini running scenes at the end of Benny Hill. If a ZZ Top video came on, he would just run over, hit "record" and catch it. Clapton said that all of his guitar parts were actually really simple. He demonstrated one of his licks and John realized that Eric Clapton had just shown him how to play a guitar lick. He rewound the tap 100 times and learned it (John got his guitar and demonstrated it).

That is the only guitar lick John ever learned and it is the foundation of every single guitar solo he has ever played. When John stayed at Merlin’s house at one of their first high-level meetings, Merlin showed John another killer lick that John demonstrates on his guitar while they record. John felt that after he learned that one guitar part, he was good, he was covered, because you can extrapolate a lot from those simple things. John did that every time he got a chance. He also learned the solo for Bad Moon Rising off of a cassette tape.

The water fountain story and remembering small stupid things (RL135)

Whenever John tunes his guitar, he thinks about the intersection of Northern Lights Boulevard and Benson Boulevard, two streets in Anchorage. For whatever reason it is imprinted in a Descartes fashion, a Cartesian fashion, like the Cartesian pyramid. Merlin still loves that show and the Cartesian water that makes our beer so delicious.

John hopes other people also have the experience that certain completely unrelated memories get attached to some action that you do frequently and that you have been doing forever. Every time you brush your teeth you think about the March of Dimes, or every time John tunes the guitar he thinks about this particular intersection in Anchorage.

After John graduated from High School he was at the mall with a good friend of his (Eric Spurlock, see RL268) who was moving away. They were walking around the mall and stopped at a drinking fountain. First Eric took a drink and as John took a drink, Eric said ”Every time you see the little drain at the bottom of a drinking fountain, I want you to think of me!” - ”Wow!” He was trying to colonize John’s brain because he did not want to be forgotten. John is not so easily colonized, but he does remember that moment and has thought about it many times as an example of human frailty. Merlin is the opposite and it is appalling how much dumb shit can get into his brain very easily.

One time Merlin’s mom stopped at a 7-Eleven type place to get film for the camera and she asked him to go in and get the Kodak 110/20 exposure, Merlin was 10 years old 38 years ago and he still has 110/20 exposure on his brain, he still can think of it very easily and he will never forget it. ”Loaf of bread, quart of milk, stick of butter”

John’s brain is full of those things, too, and they come out all the time. When you fill up your brain with something and your brain has to push something out, you get these flash memories and are transported to some memory you never had access to. For Merlin a certain musicality often makes something stick in his head, or something made him laugh and made an emotional impact.

A door-man once said to him on New Wave night at a gay bar ”As far as I am concerned, all your New Wavers are in purgatory”, or ”Murmur is a good record if you like keyboard-oriented music” (see RL12) The phrase ”keyboard-oriented music” just stuck in his head. Why would you say that? There are 50 different ways! The song Camera has some piano on it, but that is it. ”Keyboard-oriented music” said the guy at Vinyl Fever in Tampa, Florida in 1983. Sean Nelson is full of great quotes like that, the most famous being ”I have never seen anyone as shit-all stupid as you put oil in the radiator”, because his car was overheating one time and the reason was that he had put oil in his radiator.

When those kind of memories pour out of John’s head, he seizes on them and goes ”Please don’t let this be the last time I remember this! Please, brain, do not be disgorging this memory!” You never know if it was the last time, because you are not going to recall it. John grabs those memories by the ankle and reinforces them, desperately trying to hold on to this feeling and it degrades it. ”Attack ships on fire off the shoulders of Orion” (Tears in Rain Monologue)

The 1970s live vividly in John’s memory. Merlin has every intonation of every commercial in his head, but John is not just talking about the museum of television and industry, but for example when you would pull into a gas station there was a person who would wipe his hands and say ”Fill her up?” Merlin heard a sound last week and flipped out because he heard the Ding-Ding that you would hear if you pull into a gas station and drove over the thing. It got to be at least 20 years and back then you would hear it every day. Merlin heard something that sounded enough like it and he was instantly transported back to the early 1980s. Now John wants one of those. The problem is, as you remember from the 1970s, you could not make the Ding with your shoes, no matter how much you would jump on that hose. It is not useful unless you own a garage or a car-rental agency and want to be signaled that a customer is arriving by car.

Their young listeners are probably rolling their eyes so hard in their heads that they are going to have to see a doctor, because they are having an old man podcast now, like ”I remember the oil embargo”. John said that to a kid who was 30 when he was standing next to him waiting in line and he said by way of trying to break the conversational ice ”I bet you are too young to remember the oil embargo” and the kid looked at John like he had said ”Did you ever visit Prussia?” It sounds like an awesome terrible pickup line. ”How much do you know about the Carter administration? Because I know a lot! There is a big new Brzezinski”

John doing crowd-control at a Dukakis event at Gonzaga (RL135)

The first person John and Merlin ever voted for for president was Dukakis. He and Bentsen was a killer line-up and they lost big-time because he rode around in that tank with that ill-fitting helmet. In 1988 Dukakis came to Spokane and John had his first moment of pure crowd work. Dukakis was coming to speak at the big student sports pavilion at Gonzaga, sitting 8000 people, but 20.000 people showed up and no-one was prepared for it. He was supposed to be there at 8pm and the sport stadium was full of people. There were thousands of people outside who couldn’t get in, but who also didn’t want to leave without getting a glimpse of Dukakis. The police were there and strung up ropes, but they were completely outmatched and the Young Democrats were trying to do crowd control.

Dukakis didn’t come and the huge crowd outside the stadium was surging against the rope line. By 9:30pm a guy from the National Democratic Party kept walking the line, shouting that he was on his way and they were sorry while the crowd was pushing against this rope line that was just being held by some undergraduates with a look of total fear in their eyes. John was in the crowd, but he was not involved with the Young Democrats or part of the scene at all, but he just came to see Dukakis. It was cold, the crowd was getting really restless, this guy had been saying that he was going to be here in a little while, but people started to not believe him and they were starting to shout back at him.

The crowd was pressing forward and the Young Democrats in their little blue suits and their little blue skirt and jacket combos were starting to get afraid and panicky because they were getting pushed against the wall and there was no room for them to maneuver. What a way to die: Be crushed at a Dukakis rally that he didn’t show up for. They were squeaking at the crowd, like ”Everybody just take one step back!”, but nobody could hear them and nobody cared. At a certain point a gal who was right in front of John started to get ”Please, please…” with this sound in her voice. John was watching this all go down and was just thrilled to be in a crowd when he had a flash of ”Oh no, we are actually at the threshold for this being a bad scene” No-one was respecting anybody anymore and had Dukakis shown up at that moment, it would just have been chaos.

For whatever reason John ducked his head under the rope, turned around, faced the crowd and ”Hello everybody, can I get your attention please!” He went into David Lee Roth mode and all of a sudden the 400 people who were closest to him had something to look at: All of a sudden there was a big guy who was talking in an audible voice. Everybody looked at John and John said ”I want to try something right now! Can I get everybody to just do-se-do back two steps” and everybody stepped back two steps. ”Alright, let’s take another two steps back!” and everybody took another two steps back. ”Tonight is going to be one of the greatest nights of our lives, because we are going to see Mike Dukakis!” and everybody cheered, but they knew John was mocking and they were laughing and cheering.

The top of John’s head caught on fire, because all of a sudden there were 1500 people listening to him and laughing and he did 45 minutes of top-of-his-voice stand-up comedy based on Mike Dukakis not having arrived yet. It was one of the first times that he ever had that experience where he knew he was put here on Earth to do this, whatever this is. The Young Democrats were all rallying behind him, he was their hero and they wanted him to join the Young Democrats. He had a team of 10 people who were willing to work with him to move this crowd and he got them to do things. John was made to do this. He had his crook, he had his rope, he had his can of dog food and his wooden spoon and was going follow this crowd.

Then Dukakis arrived. John was whipping this crowd into a frenzy, like ”He is here! The man himself! Mike Dukakis!” and the crowd was screaming. His car drove into the arena through a garage door and the crowd outside never saw him. He gave a 45 minute speech in the stadium to the 8000 people who were in there and the whole time John had turned into Al Pacino by this point and was making promises that Dukakis was going to come out, but no-one had authorized him to do this.

At the end of the rally came the moment where John lost his faith in the Democratic party. The National Democrats there were very happy about what John was doing, and John was asking them if Dukakis would come and stand on that stair because there were thousands of people out here who have been waiting for hours. They talked into their little head-set microphone, they just said ”Yeah” and when Mike Dukakis was done, he got in his car and drove away and never appeared before this massive crowd that was standing at the foot of a staircase. He could have walked out the door, waved, blown a kiss and they all would have voted for him. His handlers probably didn’t even tell him that this crowd was out there, and they dispersed in a feeling of disappointment, John stood there and shook hands with people, like ”We went through this together, you and me!” and he was born again in the light.

John saw a glimpse behind the curtain of how not to run a political campaign. Dukakis seemed defined by a lack of energy and enthusiasm. If some balding guy in a light-blue suit would have walked up to him after his speech and whispered in his ear ”Governor, there are like 8000 people outside here, we could just walk you up, walk out the door and wave to them”, but John doesn’t believe he has ever received that information because no politician of any kind, even a lackadaisical one, will say ”Nah, I kind of want to go to the hotel” It was a failure of the balding guy in the blue suit who was concerned with time tables and they were already late.

This never would have happened with Bill Clinton. He would go out and shake those people’s hands until 2am. This was somebody's job, but that person did not recognize it as their job. They were following their job-description and they were missing the fact that this actually was their job. There is this concept of a job description which is ”solve problems as they arise” To do anything good or big, you eventually need to have some structure, but once you add infrastructure and bureaucracy to anything, it becomes the most important part of the entire process. In this instance, your job is certainly to do your administrative job and make sure he doesn’t get sniped or anything like that, and to get him on the plane, but your real job is to notice an unrecognized opportunity and capitalize on it, because that is how you change an election.

Everybody’s job on that campaign was ultimately to get him elected and the guy in the blue suit was probably ”Well, he needs his rest, he has been going all day, and this is Spokane, Washington, an unimportant crowd, so it is better to conserve his energy” People are making that kind of decision incorrectly. In retrospect you see these big patterns, like everything after this date was a foregone conclusion, but you never know what is going to come up or if a Gary Hart kind of thing is going to happen. You don’t know when this game is going to completely change and you got to be scanning the horizon to be ready for any kind of opportunity.

Not that long ago Mitt Romney was running for the American presidency as a Republican candidate. His people, who comprised some of the best-connected political minds in the country, believed that he was going to be the victor until after the polls had closed. They were gloating about it. That is how little anybody knows. This is one of Merlin’s most-despised douche catch-phrases: "Don’t you think it is mostly optics, like they need to make it look like that is the case? Whether they believe it or not?" John has seen a lot of those optics-moments and he believes that the lion-share of those people honestly believed that there was no way he could lose to Barak Obama and that it was in the bag. It is why they were so devastated when it was so devastatingly not in the bag. John doesn’t think that Dukakis thought that he was going to win past a certain point and it really did show. He really limped to the finish line. Imagine losing an election to George H.W. Bush! It is like losing an election to an animated cardboard Halloween skeleton.

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