Some Kinda Darkness

Gary Oldman as the eponymous character in 1992’s Bram Stoker’s Dracula, directed by Francis Ford Coppola, arguably the best page-by-page adaptation of the Stoker book 

I recently finished my more-or-less-yearly reread of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, something I like to do mostly because I still think it’s fascinating the impact this book has had. Also, there’s the usual “I discover something new every time” thing. It’s such a dense read, that I feel like every time something new sticks out to me.

Usually I can point to “We want no proofs. We ask none to believe us!” as one of my go-to great lines from the book, though, to go back to the idea of new things hitting you with each re-read, this time, Renfield’s casual and quiet warning to Dr. Seward right before the horrific events leading up to the attack on Mina, saying that he hopes the doctor remembers Renfield trying to warn them all to flee…reading that this time for some reason gave me a shudder, however slight, that I still went “Huh” at.

What I tend to find myself usually really fascinated with though for the most part about Dracula is what’s ultimately come out of it. Post-grad school it’s always seemed to actually be a work all about the dangers of hypersexual foreigners and solitary, predatory strangers who exist outside of the post-Enlightenment western European barriers considered the edges of acceptable behavior. That’s why the post-Anne Rice post-Vampire: The Masquerade world that has spun out of Stoker’s book is so strange to me, although weirdly a lot of Rice’s work is much more heavily-tied to Stoker when it comes to certain things.

Even though I’ve consumed a lot of horror, like zombies, vampires were never a horror thing I really enjoyed as much as say werewolves or other kinds of monsters (I am an early-in-life and perpetual fan of the Gill-Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon). I’ve seen a ton of vampire movies, especially Sir Christopher Lee in the golden age-Hammer Horror “Dracula” movies, and I’ve read a bunch of Anne Rice stuff (I’ve read a lot of horror books about vampires, actually). I never played V:TM, though I knew of it and the heavy gothic underpinnings of it. It was later on that I realized how much of it heavily influenced that weird “coven” element of meatspace vampire subculture that sees it as an intensely-romantic thing with large groups coming together as sub-communities, in direct comparison to the Stoker aspects that emphasized the lone nature and non-communal elements of the vampire as predator. Yes, Dracula has a connection to pack animals like wolves, but unlike wolves, he’s an unholy creature who craves singular domination and power, so a large “coven” (a word that didn’t actually appear in the English language until like 1921-22 and is arguably a variation of “covin,” or “deception” as well as related to the verb “convene”) just…it just doesn’t make sense.

Considering the xenophobic elements surrounding Dracula as a pervasive and infectious element (a singular one that is a metaphor for larger groups), to view him as a representation of just repressed sexuality kind of takes away the rest of the things that he can potentially represent. He’s a holdover of pre-Enlightenment/pre-age of revolution Europe (something that Stoker touches on and that Jeanne Kalogridis addresses as well in her books), believing in absolute rule, serfdom, and divine right. The vampire arguably does “adapt” to blend in (in the manner of a conqueror or a stalking predator, as Van Helsing notes in the book) but only as a means to an end. There is no “coven” or community to build, only servants to make.

Anne Rice started her stuff in the 70’s, V:TM came out first in 1991 (as did the pre-Twilight teen novel series “The Vampire Diaries”), so a lot of that definitely explains the root of the 80’s/90’s interpretations of the sexual and social aspects of Dracula. I feel stupid thinking about a lot of them though, because yes, even though I do know that technically any interpretation with the right evidence is a good one, and yes, a lot of the more modern academic readings of Stoker’s life indicate he was working through a  lot of repressed sexual issues in his own life through his writing. Does that mean that my own readings of Dracula are tainted, that I can’t recognize what seems to be just an internet joke, that the book is about a vampire who wanted a threesome with a husband and wife?

Ultimately, it’s probably just because I hate nerds and weird fandoms that make these immense connections based on tenuous, almost nonexistent threads and use those threads as the root structure for something huge to lean their lives against entirely. It’s not necessarily bad per se (one of these days I’ll write about learning how punk rock scenes were bullshit as the root of learning to always criticize fandom and subcultures), but man can it get fucking annoying.

Anyway, I still like re-reading Dracula.



Happy Halloween 2017!


Hey, it’s my favorite day of the year, so here’s a list of all the spooky/weird stuff I’ve written!

Buckles & Straps

Parade Armor of Henry II of France, ~1554

In the heat, people get sweaty.

I’ve been reading Ordination by Daniel M. Ford (a Twitter buddy) and very smart dude. It’s his debut novel (followed by Stillbright and an upcoming third in his “Paladin” trilogy”), a fantasy story with some D&D and Tolkien-esque trappings that, so far, is very good. I’m loving it, especially enjoying the protagonist, a knight in full plate armor, relying on a hammer as his primary weapon, acknowledging he’s better with that versus a traditional knight’s weapon, a sword, mostly because it comes down to efficiency and ease of use.

Also, he sweats. A lot. It’s summer, and Allystaire, our hero, sweats in that full suit of armor and gambeson padding (basically a coat/shirt made up of stuffed quilt material) underneath, and Ford brings it up to emphasize the strain and lack of comfort that comes from wearing metal body armor. While it’s a protective shell that does turn him into a veritable walking tank, it’s A) not impenetrable because it’s meant to be flexible and wearable and B) a pain in the ass to put on, take off, and wear while sweat trickles down your body because you’re basically strapped into a microwave that adds 20 to 40 pounds to your overall weight.

I know the SCA and LARPers/cosplayers can debate the pro’s and cons of the flexibility and historical accuracy of certain types of armor until the fucking cows come home in the field they’re all playing dress-up in (I kid, sorta)

The kinds of illustrations I remembered as the root of visuals for fantasy fiction as a kid.

It’s a little thing, really, but, it’s true. It reminds me of this scene from TV’s Game of Thrones, about the realization you can’t get out of armor to piss. I know that the root of the show (and the books, which I have mixed feelings about) is in adding a level of realism to fantasy worlds and storytelling, but that tends to get lost, I think at times, in the show’s overall drama and “dark fantasy” elements (which is fine, as a TV I really like it). Still, Jorah Mormont talking about being bolted into his armor for most of a day and that his main thought was how he realized he couldn’t get out of it alone is a funny moment. This, more than anything in the books or the shows or the culture around both, encapsulates to me what that whole series is about. Realistically, medieval wear and battle sucked, they were full of screaming and dying and people either running around in terror or plodding up and down a field for hours at a time, wishing they could piss while dust choked out the sky.

I’ve been diving back into genre more and more for pleasure reading, (including a re-read of William Gibson’s work, but that’s another story), thinking more and more about the limitations but also the flexibility of fantasy (in stories, games, etc) to range from completely bonkers-out there to almost boringly realistic. The visuals of fantasy as a kid, to me, were almost rigidly-antiquated, pulling straight out of my history books, as well as influenced by the outlandish looks on the covers of the books I read. Some of them, like early editions of Tolkien’s books or the versions of CS Lewis’s Narnia books I had as a kid, would have spot illustrations within that helped you create a visualization, just as the King Arthur, Ivanhoe, and Robin Hood stories I read did (which would be more historical fiction to me, but I’m digressing). Then of course the illustrations from Magic: The Gathering cards and card packs, Warhammer promotional imagery came into play as well, which helped too.

Screenshot 2017-09-30 13.45.37
Googling “fantasy book cover” gets…a lot of washy tones/colors.

That was where i got my mental images from. Those years, the mid-1990’s to early 2000’s were when I was fully immersing myself into genre, are, arguably, a bit of a flux for fantasy. Baldur’s Gate (1998) and Baldur’s Gate II (2000) were popular games at the time, though the visual differences in character designs between the two is a little shocking, and then of course there was 2001’s first LOTR movie, The Fellowship of the Ring. Baldur’s Gate II and LOTR were definitely a bit of a visual shift at that point in in fantasy, changing the overall aesthetic of the “field,” so to speak. The armor was drab and everyone, even people who technically could afford better-looking or brighter stuff, didn’t wear it.

Everyone’s drab, everyone’s in variations of the same three outfits regardless of social status, with little regard for “fashion,” a thing that really would have been a concern. Raymond Feist, for example touches on this in Talon of the Silver Hawk when the titular character talks about a style popular amongst men in a particular kingdom, a glorified arming jacket cut to be purposely worn half-on, half-off, supposedly so that you can draw a sword easier. It’s such a dumb-sounding thing that no matter how many times I’ve read that book I still can’t completely picture it. The LOTR films also arguably influenced a lot of other little things since then, from the looks of protagonists (I’m gonna say it, no one ever really does “elves” right, though Tolkien’s Galadriel is arguably the closest in her perpetual near-Lovecraftian otherworldliness) to the way we depict “bad guys” and otherworldly/nonhuman villains as having distantly non-Western or non-human (but still weirdly vague) “tribal” looks, with rough armor, body painting and armor, and piercings. Their exoticism is always painted as outward signs of their villainy, but that exoticism is smoothed-over, giving it a bit of a generic feel.

This is what comes up when you search “modern DnD rogue” and…OK? Is he a ninja? Is that Egyptian armor he’s wearing? Is that a sword on the back? How do you get to that? Looks badass, I guess.

The new vibe is one that puts a lot of effort into making characters, visually at least, seem “badass.” I’m sure a lot of it has to do with the leaps and bounds that art seems to have made and with art for fantasy no longer just relying on traditional medieval/historical recommendations and inspirations (which, to be fair, can be stifling and a little racist). Overall fantasy fiction (as a genre) is one that is trying really hard to change and show a level of interesting growth, but in doing so sometimes it feels like it’s continuing this odd tradition of not really going anywhere at all. Heroes are still somehow magically pulling swords from over their shoulders in one fluid move, everyone’s a sniper with a bow and arrow, and no one ever needs to take a piss in the middle of a battle but can’t because they’re basically bolted into their metal pants.

Fantasy as a genre’s always struggled to avoid falling into the traps of genre (catering to the same slowly-shrinking fanbase, not unique to fantasy alone but a rampant nerd/subculture thing in general) and, overall, I really think that it’s overall done a good job in terms of making itself both appealing to traditional or long-term fans as well as having ins for people who want to jump in. I’ll rag on everyone having tribal tattoos or the same-looking “exotic” armor on the cover of something, but in a way if that’s the trade-off to get more people and more different types of people into fantasy, then it’s a trade-off I feel like is OK to make.

Complaining about the covers seems small and in the long run, like I just said it’s a not that big a deal compared to the strides in terms of representation with characters, story, and readership. Also I recognize how much of this is also tied into my own nostalgic attachment to fantasy fiction as a kid who was absorbed by so much of it, nose buried in pages to escape.

Sometimes I think we still lose sight of the actual realism in our more realistic but also visually-interesting (arguably?) fantasy. You sweat in armor.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt.7

Alkaline_Trio_-_From_Here_to_Infirmary_coverFun Costa Fact!

I was in Manhattan during the 2001 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center buildings. I was on my way to my Tuesday philosophy lecture in my first year of college, and I think I had a job interview later that day as well.

So I came aboveground from the subway, headphones on, crossing the big street, Lexington Avenue, to get to my campus. I went to Hunter College, and I remember people looking down Lexington towards downtown, someone yelling something about a plane. Hunter College is at 68th Street on the East Side of Manhattan, so it’s a bit of a ways up from WTC. I went into the building, I was late, and got up to the 3rd floor of the main building and headed to my lecture hall, where people were crowded around the TV’s that, back then (they don’t anymore I believe) were broadcasting the local news. People cried, tried to make phone calls and comfort each other, I worried about a friend of mine from high school who was Muslim and I later found out didn’t leave the house for three days because Queens can be white trash as fuck. I almost walked over the 59th street bridge to get back into Queens that day, ate like four Snickers bars for lunch, and ended up meeting up with my dad and we took the subway.

It was a terrible day, one that didn’t really sink in with me until maybe later that evening, and then for a brief moment the next morning when I woke up and started to get through my morning routine. I looked at my mother and asked her if maybe it was a bad idea to get on the subway again. She scoffed and told me it was fine, not to worry about it, and to get to my Wednesday classes. So I got on the bus, headed to the subway, and put my headphones on while I had my portable CD player in my bag, and pressed play on From Here To Infirmary by Alkaline Trio.

Alkaline Trio were pretty essential to college-aged Costa as a bitingly-dark and gothic punk trio that mixed fucked-up gothic lyrics and imagery with Jawbreaker earnestness and riffs, so of course I jumped all over it. I think they were the first band I experienced that did the “two vocalists” thing really well also. From Here To Infirmary was the first of their records I got, but within like six months I went out and got all their other records. It’s a little heavier and more densely-produced then their previous work (again, Jawbreaker comparison here with JB’s Dear You as the analogous record here), but I kinda consider it, to this day, them at their peak. It’s still in rotation semi-regularly for me. I’ve always liked balances of rawness and nastiness with melody, and it was part of the shift at the time in what I listened to, less California skatepunk bands singing about hating authority and either more hardcore punk (faster, angrier, stupider) or darker sarcastic & moodier stuff (like Alkaline Trio). It’s a fine line between emotional and sappy, between spineless and legitimately earnest, which is a line that college-aged punk boys tend to do poorly with half the time, honestly. Cutting it with evil-looking iconography and sarcasm definitely helped.

I’m listening to the record now as I write this, actually.

But anyway, so it’s September 12th and my mother convinced me to go to my classes, because after all, she and my Dad went to work, so why shouldn’t I go to school? I agreed, shook off any fear or anxiousness, got to the 7 train to get out of Queens and into Manhattan, and hit play on the CD. The first song on the album is called “Private Eye,” and the first few lines go;

I drag this lake, looking for corpses

Dusting for prints, pried up the floorboards

Pieces of plane and black box recorders don’t lie

And I started snickering, out loud, on a quiet subway car full of other people, other New Yorkers also on their way to school or work, quiet and not really talking because it’s the day after a disaster. It was such a surreal moment to me that on the day after terrorists flew hijacked airliners into buildings in my city, I was listening to a dark punk-ish love song that literally starts off describing picking through the crashed remnants of an airplane.

Side-note, for a while after this fun story I legitimately thought I was a sociopath for finding this funny.

Of course it got better, because, in 2001, email was in its nascent infancy as a form of communication (for me at least) and I didn’t have a cellphone. That meant that when I showed up to campus…every door was locked. The buildings were all locked down, and I sorta just stood there dumbfounded for a good five minutes before a security guard inside saw me through the door, and came to let me know I was a dummy for not checking my school email, because campus had been closed and locked down for two days. It’s strange nowadays to look back and not yell at my younger self “why would you think there’d be classes immediately after something like that? And why wouldn’t you check?” but, as we’ve established, A) I was and continue to be kind of dense about cues like that and B) I had literally just started college two weeks before, and the idea of that level of responsibility on my part to stay up-to-date just…eluded me, I guess?

It was an hour-and-a-half commute between my house and my college campus back then, so I basically turned around and went back home, still listening to From Here To Infirmary in the CD player in my bag, headphones snaking out to my ears. Now, ever time I listen to it, when that first song kicks in and Matt Skiba starts to sing, I think about 9/11, about the day after, and about trying not to laugh out loud about plane crashes on the subway.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt. 6

Oh good, we’re at the embarassingly-heavy memories phase of this…

WonderyearsupsidesBack in the early 2000’s I was in graduate school and I started seeing this girl who I met online after a drunk night cruising the Internet. I ended up doing that real stupid thing guys do, where they make minor fights with their friends into huge blowouts, and then basically drop off the face of the earth to just spend time with that girl. In 2010, we moved out of New York after living together for about a year or so because she’d lost her job and wanted to get out of New York City.

I figured I’d be OK wherever we landed since she wanted to go back to the Midwest where she was from, and I knew her home state had a lot of colleges. I was starting to teach and was still making a little money and exposure through writing, so I said why not? Why not move away from my support networks and friends and family to a city where I had no job waiting for me with a girl that I’d already had a few intense fights with about dumb shit like whether or not we should even be in a relationship, or whatever it was we fought about and I’d just apologize to stop it?

You can see where this went.

The move ended up being a terrible idea, probably one of the dumbest things I’ve ever done because not only were the two of us really not right for each other (which means that the wedding we were half-assed planning was a dumb move) but we were both miserable with life in general and probably shouldn’t have even moved in together. We fought constantly about money and responsibilities, and we both had a lot going on in our 20s that were clear indicators neither of us should have been in a relationship. Still, when you’re a lonely idiot with a terrible streak in dating and a passive-aggressive “nice guy” compliant attitude just to keep the peace in relationships, you do dumb things and jump into bad situations. The last few months, where we’d technically broken off the engagement and were basically housemates, were supposed to coast by but ended up just being really ugly and we both said things out loud that we really shouldn’t have.

It was a wast of almost five years of my life, a gap I still regret. Still past shaping you and all that, yada yada, and about two months before we moved I started listening to The Upsides by The Wonder Years.

The Upsides came out in 2010 and I got my hands on it as a review copy, back when I still got those things in the mail. I wasn’t really reviewing much then but didn’t really let promo guys and editors know that much, because I kinda was trying to still do it on my own for my own site as well as basically milking free books, comics, and music from people. Still, I wasn’t much in the mood to review music then. Also the older I got the weirder I felt about nasal and upbeat-sounding pop punk rooted in suburban angst and nice-guy-why-won’t-she-like-me-isms, but I’d had a good experience with The Wonder Years (following that grand tradition of late early- to mid-aughts pop punk bands naming themselves after 80’s and 90’s pop culture milestones or jokes) so I decided to give it a go.

In the end though I remember being pleasantly surprised, because it ended up being a record with a thematic element to it about moving away from one place, about being in a confused place in life, and what to do next. It felt to me like it was a record about stagnation, and I felt, somewhat stupidly, that I was stagnating in life. Also, I’d burned so many fucking bridges by the time we were moving when it came to not just fiends but also freelance writing contacts (mostly because I had to tell some people to stop asking if I could go write about NOFX in Brooklyn on a Wednesday night for free or whatever because I was in the middle of finishing my Master’s thesis) I was kind of delusional telling myself that leaving New York was a good thing, and this record definitely played into that.

I mean, it’s a good album, though listening to it now 7 years later it doesn’t really hold up to me, that sweet earnestness now just sounding like sappy mewling to me. It definitely sounds like something that was meant to connect with a confused 20-something right out of graduate school, and that was me at the time. I was confused about what constituted a healthy relationship, I was confused about who my friends really were, and I was confused about what I wanted in life.

A lot of times I tell people I missed out on a lot of the crazy “finding yourself” stuff that people do in life when they’re teenagers or whatever because I was a fairly milquetoast kid. I never really got in serious trouble, I mostly read or listened to music or occasionally went out to ride my bike or skateboard. I dabbled in underage drinking and  huffing (not really my proudest moments) and was into trashy violent stuff like comics and horror and punk rock, but I never got arrested (almost, once though, for skateboarding), I never ran away, snuck out, did anything terribly dangerous…at least not until I was older, anyway. Still, the fact that I basically cut and dropped everything and moved to another city and managed to make it work for a year or two (work-wise, the first six months was a battle, then there was a good year, then those last six months were a slow burn towards awful)…I feel like it’s kind of a crazy thing to do.

Granted I ran back with my tail between my legs to spend some time living with my family again (because I ran out of money), which made me feel even more like shit, but still, kinda wild, right?

The dumb and weird thing is that a few years after I moved back to New York I found out that The Wonder Years had released two more albums (that were quite good!), and listening to them had a weird eerie synchronicity with what was going on with my life then as well, but that’s another story.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt. 5


This one’s a double-whammy, mostly because I can’t remember which of the two was the big albums at the time among my circle of friends when I was a teenager living overseas.

In tenth grade everyone I knew got invited to some girl’s birthday party. I think her name was Evie, but I can’t remember for sure. Her parents had some friends over and they played cards in the kitchen while the rest of the 16-year old morons (myself included) ran rampant in the living room and out on the balcony overlooking the suburban neighborhood in the outskirts of Athens, a fairly-fancy area where lots of expats and richer families lived. The apartment was a big one that took over the whole second floor of this building, so there was nothing below us besides someone else’s apartment (which I think was empty at the time) and nothing above us but the roof of the building, which we could actually access from the outside. It was, in theory, the perfect setting for a party that, for most of the night, was a pretty cool party (someone later on accused me later on of stealing a CD from the stack of stuff people brought, which I didn’t do and I don’t think it went anywhere, which was weird, but anyway…)

We ate hot dogs and burgers and chips and drank a fuck-ton of soda, kids smoked cigarettes and made out on the roof, and we listened to music really loud. A few kids were obsessed with Biohazard, and like anyone in the 1990’s in alternative music around that age, at least five people brought their copies of the Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Colle and the Infinite Sadness. I’ve never liked either band honestly, something about the pretentiousness of the Smashing Pumpkins bugging me (I was also pretty deep into thrash-y Southern California power-pop-influenced skate-punk at the time). I’m pretty sure we played party games like all teenagers do no matter how cool they think they are, and since none of us were cool enough to go to the underground punk shows the older kids at school played at or went to, had our own slamdancing dumbness to whatever was on the stereo in the living room, usually Biohazard over and over again, putting the Pumpkins on as background music, I guess.

Christ, that is intensely embarrassing to admit, much less remember.

Anyway, as the night wore on, some kids from the street apparently tried talking to some of the people on the balcony and asked if they could come up and party with us, and over about ten to twenty minutes, that…kind of escalated.

So, long story short, about thirty guys ended up in the street outside this party, basically hanging out and implying they wanted us (the guys at the party, of course) to come down into the street and fight them. Thirty guys turned into about fifty, a lot of whom seemed to appear out of nowhere as friends called their friends, and in the end, someone’s dad from the back in the kitchen came out and saw what was happening, and we ended up locked in the apartment behind a big metal shutters that came down to lock the doors that led out to the apartment’s balcony while parents and rides were called and warned to maybe not come by just yet.

(Car culture, especially for teenagers, was not really a thing. Scooters and motorbikes were the desired way to get around on your own when you were 17, 18 there. This meant that for the most part if we wanted to get anywhere outside of the city proper, we were reliant on public transit, shank’s mare, or someone’s dad’s car.)

This was probably the first “real” party I’d gone to as a teenager, for the most part my social life revolved around reading comics at home alone, or occasionally going out to skate with locals or friends of mine, which could require a commute of up to two hours. It was so weird to, in an instant, find myself in what basically amounted to a siege, having to tell my dad over the phone that he couldn’t come get me quite yet because I was basically an extra in a Sunday night action movie. We could and occasionally did peek through the blinds, and it was basically just a group of dudes with their bikes, periodically revving them and having the lights of their bikes on, shining around.

Probably, I feel like I’m correct when I think I remember this whole incident wrong, that it wasn’t as bad, or maybe it was worse than I thought, actually. I’ll be honest, when I joke and say I’ve been hit in the head a few times and it might’ve scrambled my brains, I’m semi-serious. I don’t always trust myself about some of the things I remember, which I’ve been called out for by friends when bringing stuff up sometimes. I don’t talk to anyone from then anymore for a variety of reasons, so I wouldn’t even know how to go back and try to re-inforce this memory.

In what was, thinking back, the crassest but weirdest exercise of privilege ever, one of the parents there wasn’t an expat like a lot of our folks or a local, but worked for the US Embassy. Though there hadn’t been any American military at any of the bases in Greece for over a decade I think by then, there was a contingent of Marines stationed in the embassy as security detail…so someone made a call and an armored van full of high-n-tight haircuts and flak vests pulled up outside the apartment, making it very clear that this was a party that was bring broken up, no matter how many stories of “they threw beer cans at us” were said.

Man I wish we’d had beer.

I remember my dad laughing about it with the marines and the other parents there when he finally did pull up and we gave some other kids I vaguely knew a ride as well that night when it was all over. They weren’t kids I hung out with much, friends of friends who in my mind were infinitely cooler than me, and they got out in my neighborhood and hopped on a bus somewhere else, not home I knew. For some weird reason I also feel like we didn’t really talk about how crazy that night was after that in school, when we’d sit around and talk shit. I don’t know why I feel like that, because the fact that we almost started some kind of riot in the suburbs over some local dudes in weird fade cuts and flight jackets wanting to party with us.


Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt. 4

The first CD player I ever got was a “boombox” type, the kind with the tape deck for one tape, the CD player on top, and a radio built in. It was an upgrade from having to share my parents’ stereo for listening to the radio or the B-52’s and Pearl Jam cassette tapes I’d gotten as gifts and occasionally listened to. The problem was that I just didn’t have any CD’s to listen to.

This was pre-punk rock for me, so radio pop was basically all I had, a dubious minefield in the 1990’s ranging from pre-“smooth hits” R&B, girl groups, hip-hop, and boy bands (this was a little before the explosion of the solo female pop singer as we know her nowadays like Britney Spears or Beyonce). My musical tastes hadn’t really solidified into anything, we were living overseas so anything in English that my parents didn’t listen to basically counted as what I liked. American music radio in Greece at the time was limited to Top 40 as well as whatever was popular in English-language-speaking European countries like the UK or even Germany. Living in Europe at the time also meant that the wave of electronic music like trance, techno, electric-influenced pop, remixes, and Euro-pop (pre-Eurovision) was in that mix as well, something that I later on in life realized and learned sometimes drew from goth/punk/underground DIY cultures like the Prodigy, Massive Attack, etc. Ace_Of_Base-The_Bridge

For some reason, we had MTV when I lived overseas. MTV in Europe wasn’t a cable channel like it’s always been on television in the US, so that and the radio was what I had. Somehow, I decided that the first music album 11-year old me should get was The Bridge by Ace Of Base.

I know the jokes and Internet urban legends now about the Swedish pop group’s supposed background in white nationalism or something like that, and I also now know how they, who formed in 1987, were somehow, a hugely-influential pop group on the rest of the world. I listened to this CD for a while, enjoyed it, keeping it around even after I got into punk and metal. It was one of the CD’s I kept even when I moved back to the US, to New York, all the way up to when I moved in with a girlfriend. It’s probably in the stack of CD’s in my parents’ basement.

I couldn’t tell you what I liked about this band or this album, because honestly going back to it now, this band sounds intensely dated in being Sunday-afternoon milquetoast pop music. I know that pop music is making a bit of a “critical darling” revival recently but I can’t really find anything to be critically enjoying about it. It’s vaguely generic, it’s unmemorable beyond the radio hits that have been irrevocably burned into pop culture consciousness, and it does that thing I never really understood at the time, where the guys featured fairly prominently in the promotional material or music videos never did any of the actual singing. Now I know that the trend was to incorporate the producers and songwriters (but not vocalists or instrumentalists) into the lineup of a singing group to create the group itself, basically turning a singer or a duo into a pop “group”. Honestly I think the only reason I got this was because I knew who this group was by name.

Again, I have to admit that for a long time, I had zero real musical taste of my own. Nothing was really defined in my head as “music I liked,” and I struggle to explain why to people. But I can’t, it’s a bizarre block in my brain. It explains the CD’s that came after this one (a mixture of techno and “happy hardcore” my mom’s brother bought me for some reason, and Temples of Boom by Cypress Hill weirdly, which I think I bought because the cover looks like something from a fantasy novel or kung-fu movie).

The CD player boombox ended up in the boondocks back in Greece, a functional radio/tape player/CD player loaned to relatives because when I moved back to the US we couldn’t bring a lot of stuff back. When I came back to the States as a teenager I somehow moved backwards to an old family heirloom, a two-tape boombox, relegating CD’s to a shoebox, and then a Discman later. The CD player boombox was one I’d see whenever I’d go visit family in Greece, ending up in the house my maternal grandfather had, a little stone four-room cottage on property on an island in the Aegean my family was from. No TV, pre-Internet, no paved roads, no real radio that the small old transistor units could pick up. The relatively-powerful radio on that CD boombox though could reach almost all the way to the mainland. It moved from being a staple of my teen years in my bedroom to being a staple of the family, a collective item that we all used.

When I went back to Greece last summer in 2016, it was still there, a decade since I’d last seen it. We listened to the radio on it while we were there, some sort of semi-traditional Turkish music station, then some English pop music, I don’t remember. It was odd to see that dusty old black plastic boombox, with the curved no-corner look in black considered the cutting edge of design aesthetics in 1998 and 1999. Along with the old books that have a unique home in that little cottage, it’s sorta become a bit of a time capsule place. I was recently talking to my brother, who got back from his first trip in a decade there, about the books we always read just there and would never really consider trying to get home or replace with new copies. We had a laugh about buying new William F. Buckley Jr novel (See You Later, Alligator) to have here in the States considering what a shitheel he was, even though we re-read that book every chance we’d get in Greece during summers.

I wonder if that boombox is still going to be there in five years, or even ten. There’s a little rust on the big antenna that can extend outwards, but that’s really about it. My brother told me that someone left a CD in there for years and it somehow still plays perfectly fine. The radio works, fine, you can’t really ever get rid of radio it seems like, real radio that broadcasts out on the air to get picked up in a tiny village on an island in the Aegean, where two boys used to sit and fight and fiddle with the antenna and dial to get snatches and strains of American pop some nights, in a place where the roads weren’t even paved.

Probably, to be honest, which makes me feel a little good and comfortable, knowing something like that can be counted on. It feels like its hard to find anything else as reliable as that.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault pt. 3

After that Black Flag album, the next “classic punk” album I got was ALL by the Descendents. To be more precise, it arrived like a golden rainbow of beauty amongst my circle of friends so I borrowed it, listened to it nonstop, and then make two tape copies before giving it back to its owner, my buddy Peter. I think this was one of the few times I actively participated in the legendary “tape swapping/trading” activity that everyone always talks about in underground music subcultures (there’s another moment like this that comes to mind but that’s another story). One of those tape copies is still somewhere in my old family house, along with what eventually was my own CD copy. Descendents_-_All_cover

It was (and still is) one of my favorite records almost immediately. That sappy dorky “nerd punk” aspect about food and coffee, farts, and pining for girls was a pretty perfect ground-zero for a skinny guy with zero social skills and zero desire to be a leather- and chain-clad gutter punk. The fact that the band was also basically “marketed” as a “brainy” band thanks to singer Milo Aukerman’s academic background made me pounce all over them.

The Descendents were basically part of that gateway path of bands adding pop and melody to punk riffs, basically adding speed and snottiness to power pop but in the end getting us that weird monster that is…ugh…pop punk. It’s not all bad though, once you wade through the “nice guy” motifs of so much of it and realize the impact they brought to bands like The Mr. T Experience or Jawbreaker, who at least tried to temper that sort of stuff by acknowledging just how terrible that kind of dumb attitude, however inevitable, can be. It’s pretty dumb and cringe-worthy, a lot of the attitudes and things we’d look at nowadays and

Anyway, the Descendents are still the kings of it as far as I’m concerned all these years later. Besides ALL, their 1996 album Everything Sucks is one of the best records I’ve ever heard period. Then the Descendents basically “broke up” and formed the band called ALL that was basically the Descendants with other singers but the same sound, sorta, and slightly more-experimental songs, but considering that ALL (the record) and the semi-serious/semi-joking “ALL-ogistics” life philosophy that it espoused was the inspiration for ALL (the band), it’s a weird blurry line.

I met Peter, who the school security guards called “Columbine” because he wore a long black duster (this was, 1999 I think) and then “Jesus” because he was a tall skinny white guy who grew his hair long, when I moved back to New York as a teenager through a girl who thought I was interesting and introduced me to her circle of friends, who ended up becoming my friends while she ended up cycling between drugs/booze and a weird fundamentalist Christian group she’d try to get people to come to with her on weekends. I forgot her name but she wanted to be called “Farah.” I think I was infatuated with her for a while because she talked to me and because she was a cool hippie girl who liked that I read fantasy novels during lunch and wore all black and metal chains all over. “Farah” and a guy named Aramis who wore Misfits and  were the first friends I made when I started that new high school. come to think of it, Aramis also ended up finding God at one point after a stint or two in rehab, from what I remember, though his salvation came in the form of Judaism. Weird.

Still, our love of punk, snotty weird dark humor, and both playing trumpet in band in high school had Pete and I be the ones who remained close longer, though we’ve since lost touch. He liked scat jazz and he was a way better trumpet player than me, and for a brief moment we wanted to form a ska band. We both lived on the same way home too, so we’d hang out and walk home after school, half the time dragging instrument cases home to practice. I’m not entirely sure how well I remember this, but after he and his longtime girlfriend Brooke broke up (but in , Peter ended up dating a girl who came to our school during our senior year who lived in the apartment building complex near my house, a weird hippie girl who claimed she kept a calendar counting down to the day she was going to die. The way I heard it, she tried to stab her mother with a headshop “Satanic” dagger over some fight, and ended up getting put in a medical/psych hold over it. Peter would claim to be her cousin so he could see her, which I found so bizarre at the time but in its own way was sorta sweet, I guess.

I still think about Peter sometimes. I know he still lives in Queens, but that’s basically it. Most of the people I went to high school with have faded into the background of occasional Facebook posts on birthdays, but even then, not really? I don’t know if it was what felt like a semi-transient phase of life, or if it was the fact that I was in three high schools in four years, but the idea of maintaining these relationships that I formed when I was between 14 and 16 and then enshrining them is just so strange to me. It was a weird tumultuous time in my life, it’s a weird time in everyone’s life.

Asking people at that age to enshrine their relationships at that moment forever is, I think, asking a lot of people who still aren’t even fully-formed in their own heads. I’m not the person I was at 16, 17, or even 22. And while I don’t think you can entirely discount those kinds of friendships or romantic high-school sweetheart relationships, I think it’s important to recognize that sometimes people just…move on. It’s not a bad thing, and sometimes you can go back to it, like a favorite record or book you look at once in a while, put on the turntable or in the CD player. It can just be a realization in a good way as well of how far you’ve come in life, and what you’ve had to get over or get through.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault, pt. 2

Since the last one felt mildly cathartic, just me yelling and rambling into the void about music but not really, let’s move on, shall we?

We took trips when I was a kid to visit my mom’s family in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, ever since I was a kid. When I was a teenager after I came back to the US & got guilted into going with them because I had nothing else to do, I hated it. Well, I disliked it as a young kid too, though I’d just put myself into a trance of reading a comic or playing my Gameboy. Bat_out_of_HellAs a teenager I just listened to music the whole time on my Walkman, rationing my batteries and playing my tapes. My parents would chat with each other or listen to the radio, and occasionally, listen to music. The soundtrack to the Forrest Gump movie was in constant circulation with them, as was   Billy Joel (ugh), Bruce Springsteen, (my mother’s favorite musician) and Billy Idol. Of course now I can enjoy Motown, Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, “the Boss,” and Billy Idol…and I can tune out the whitebread yacht-rock tameness of Long Island’s perpetually-loved Billy Joel.

Fun fact, my brother apparently went to a bar once he frequented and told me everyone there hated him because he’s a cheap asshole who barely tips, but I can’t remember most of that story because I’ve been hit in the head a lot throughout the years. Anyway…

The one thing that they played though that I did like was Bat Out Of Hell by Meat Loaf. A lot of it had to do with “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” a song I was somehow delighted to discover was about a couple listening to the baseball game on the car radio as he tries to get her to have sex with him, making it such a bizarre and loony back-and-forth that somehow made it OK for it to be an eight-and-a-half minute-long song, something my teen punk sensibilities railed against. Now of course I’ll stand up for Meat Loaf/Michael Aday any day of the week (no pun intended), but then, I think it was part of the beginnings of ironic/guilty pleasures in cheesy rock music. I kept it in that “guilty” corner of my brain all through my teen years. Meat Loaf was the band I’d take my headphones off in the car to listen along to, putting them back on when Billy Joel’s greatest hits or news radio came on, diving back into Zeke or Bad Religion or whatever I had a tape of on me with my Walkman.

Everything your parents like, you’re supposed to dislike, especially since I didn’t really have an actively-musical household, and wasn’t exposed to stuff in a way to make me appreciate it (other than reading…books were the currency and legacy of my household as a kid).

I don’t really remember what made me latch onto it in the first place though when they’d play Meat Loaf in the car, but I think it was because when I was nine I saw the weird pseudo-Beauty & The Beast-themed music video for “I Would Do Anything For Love” (this isn’t the video but it’s close) on the little TV in my aunt’s kitchen, in the apartment down the hall from the one we’d just moved into when we moved to Athens, in Greece. It might have also been my first real exposure to a music video as well because, like I said, we weren’t a musically-oriented family, so Meat Loaf has a weird place in my mind and heart, and is somehow interwoven with my memories of my aunt Angela.

She was my maternal grandmother’s sister who loved big designer sunglasses and had a little weird kitchen off the rest of her amazing faux-baroque, dark-velvet living room, a giant space made from the combining of two living separate apartments into one larger space. She had the little turtle on the balcony outside, she had the plants, she had a tiny room full of old magazines I’d browse through when we visited, a room I’ve later realized was the maid’s quarters back when people in apartments had live-in maids. But her kitchen stood out, bright amongst the low and ambient light of most of the rest of her apartment, where despite having all this space, she spent most of her time. There was the  bench-slash-couch against the one wall behind the table that filled the middle of the room, her little TV, the doorway out into the other faux-balcony, an “outside” in that it was a balcony built in the middle of the large open space that ran down the middle of the building, where she had more plants and a washer/dryer.  I don’t know why but I still think about that weird little kitchen with the uncomfortable bench and the bright halogen lights as she’d cook and watch TV.

My aunt loved a soap called Lampsi, which means “The Shine” or “The Glamor”. I just learned it stopped running in 2005 after going since 1991, thought it exists in syndication until 2010 in other parts of Europe like Bulgaria. She’d “babysit” us when my folks were out or working late, basically periodically coming down the hallway of our apartment building to knock and see if my brother and I were alive. Sometimes she’d get us giant sugar-raised donuts the size of my face. I really miss those donuts. I miss my aunt too, and I feel bad that I didn’t really appreciate her as much as I should have.

Her husband, Themistocles, was a doctor who ran his own ear/nose/throat clinic. He had a couple of strokes that basically crippled him, so when she got sick and passed away we hired a series of nurses to take care of him. He knew I wanted to be a teacher and do something with literature though, and even though the strokes took a lot from him, he remembered that and always asked me if I was going to become a professor in a big college, something I always said yes to. I started teaching after he passed away, and I think a lot about him every time someone asks me about teaching. He was named after the famous Greek politician and general (who was a populist and a hero of the Battle of Marathon, considered the first true battle of the Persian War) My uncle was an old communist and officer in the local office of the KKE (Kommunistiko Komma Ellas, the Communist Body of Greece), the major Greek communist political party (one of two or three that held parliamentary seats). A lot of my relatives are communists back in Greece, come to think of it.

We still listen to Meat Loaf if I travel with my parents anywhere.

Awkward Scene, Everyone’s Fault, pt. 1

In doing something I’m 100% sure I’ll regret, I decided I wanted to write about music again, but because I never listen to anything current or popular, I wanted to look back and grimace at some of the albums I remember having particular themes and memories attached to them, be they for better or worse, because hey, why not look back and laugh?

I’ve written about Coconut’s in my old neighborhood in Flushing before, mainly for the movie selection which was, surprisingly, in-depth and choice. However, Coconut’s primarily leveraged itself as a record store, and as a gun-shy kid who didn’t really venture too far into Greenwich Village/downtown Manhattan to the cool punk stores that much alone (I was really neurotic and unsure of myself and the world around me), and didn’t have a regular income as a teenager sometimes (my main “job” as a teenager was getting cash from my uncles once in a while during summer as the gopher on their three-man contracting jobs, otherwise I eked out a budget on birthday money and saved lunch money leftovers for records and any punk accoutrements I wanted).

Black_Flag_-_Damaged_coverPlus, the circle of friends I had in 11th and 12th grade when I was back living in the US were primarily interested in industrial music and nu-metal, something my purist punk self sneered at then in the way that stupid punks tended to be, so tape/CD trading, the standard staple for getting new music you might like when you’re a cheap and/or broke teenager in the pre-Internet era (or rather, pre-knowing about how to use the primitive Internet of the era to get free stolen music) for new stuff was fairly limited. Still, thanks to dog-eared copies of THRASHER and CIRCUS magazines, I thought myself pretty well-versed in punk rock and punk culture (even though I feel compared to a lot of my peers I got into punk rock “late”, in high school, but that’s another story about bullshit expectations), slowly beginning to expand my palate of counter-culture stuff like old movies and pre-punk/early hardcore bands thanks to discovering oral history books about stuff like that. I also had an older “cousin,” one of my uncle’s friends who’d been a punk rocker in New York in the 80’s. He’d toured in a band and told me about bands like the Minutemen and Throbbing Gristle and helped me get a deal on a cheap bass guitar and amp.

One of those high-school friends of mine ended up being my first girlfriend, who I was obsessed with in that way a teenage boy tends to be when he’s stupid and horny and never gotten any attention from a girl before.  We’d go for fast-food dates or hang out at my house watching movies and making out (I lived with my grandparents at the time, and for a period of time just my grandfather, who didn’t particularly care about what was going on as long as I came home at night and went to school), but also a lot of times we’d just wander around Queens and talk and hold hands in the park. A thing we’d do is go to the bookstore a the strip mall/shopping area and look at stuff and sit in the A/C, or we’d go to Coconut’s, something all teenagers Flushing did (my girlfriend wasn’t from Flushing, but she always came to see me rather than let me come to her neighborhood or apartment because her dad was apparently a lunatic, but anyway). We wandered the isles and looked and scoffed at bullshit pop stuff, and I’d flip through the movies and point stuff out to her in that dumb way that made me a Hard Times article come to life.

It was during one of those times, after a summer reading and re-reading Steven Blush’s book American Hardcore a thousand times and listening to every CD and tape and mixtape I owned, that I stopped and pointed. There, in the “B” section of the CDs between Britney Spears and Babe: The Motion Picture Soundtrack or something like that?

Damaged by Black Flag.

The first Flag record with their most famous frontman arguably, Henry Rollins, who has since gone on to become a pop culture figure in his own right. The album Blush venerated like a saint’s bones in his book for like twenty pages it felt like, the album “everyone” told me (more like all the books and magazines told me because who the fuck did I know at 16, 17 years old who listened to Black Flag in 1999?) had “changed” punk rock and hardcore.

I had $20 in my wallet…but I paused.

“Do you want to buy it?” my girlfriend asked, after probably uninterestedly listening to me rant and rave about Flag and 80’s hardcore for weeks on end. I demurred, thinking about what I could do with twenty dollars instead in terms of junk food or renting movies at the time, about how I wanted to stretch that out maybe to go buy some fantasy novels or Japanese comics instead. I hemmed, I hawed, and in the end, I passed on it, and we went to go do the things that handsy teenagers do in the park or in my bedroom while watching a movie.

About three weeks later, I was alone, I was in Coconut’s again, and I still had some money. Fuck it. In a place that was basically a small-time version of a Virgin Megastore planted between a bank and a sporting-goods & sneaker store, finding a CD version (because it’s 1999, it’s before vinyl was a “thing” again) of Black Flag’s Damaged was finding a wallet full of $50-bills on the street when no one else is around as far as I was concerned. I think it was like $10. My girlfriend was weirdly annoyed about it considering how she’d told me I should just get it the first time, then I went and said no, then got it anyway when I wasn’t with her. Being definitively-sure of my choices or making any kind of decision on my own wasn’t  my strong suit as a neurotic kid, what can I say.


This was the first “old”/classic punk album I ever bought. I was one of those guys who was swayed by California/West Coast skate punk and the rise of “alternative” culture in the popular consciousness, enjoying the crass obnoxiousness and righteous self-centered but honest anger of the era that used sugary pop hooks to be semi-palatable. It was the era of Epitaph records and Rhino Records re-releases, and I was 100% about that at 14, 15. I sucked at skateboarding too, by the way, probably because my natural nervousness and the terror imparted into my brain by my parents about breaking my glasses making me too scared to fully throw myself off tall public monuments with a plank of wood under my feet as someone blasted the first Down By Law or the latest Rancid record from a boombox behind me. What did I know?

What do I even know now?

So yeah, now I’m 34 and Dez Cadena’s the better Black Flag singer as far as I’m concerned on the rare occasions that I listen to Black Flag (the guy Rollins replaced who was still playing guitar with the band), and I think this CD is in with the rest of the records that are still languishing in my parents’ basement in Queens with a bunch of my other records. I’ll be honest, I don’t think I really liked it that much, considering the “SST Sound” was to basically sound like you recorded a record inside a tin moonshiner’s shack with the volume on the microphones turned super-low. It also made me think that anything that wasn’t Billy Joel from the 1980’s sounded just as shitty.

This is patently untrue of course, because the Minutemen managed to make the SST sound work for Double Nickels On the Dime, but that’s another story probably best told by someone else who’s smarter about sound and recording and music than me, who is an idiot.