Just one of those coincidences

Attention recovering stalkers: mild voyeouristic content alert. Where were you when you heard that Jim Carroll died? I was sitting in front of my computer last night, when I came across the news reading the Awl in my RSS reader. The reason that this struck me as odd is that at 5:47 pm on Sunday (that would be the day before yesterday), I posted a video of Carroll’s song People Who Died on my tumblr (you can confirm this by refreshing the page today at 5:47, when the date stamp should change from “one day ago” to “two days ago”). I assumed that I’d heard about the death sometime Sunday afternoon, and that’d sparked the post. So, I checked my firefox history — you can see me posting the video at the top, and no mention of Carroll in the preceding few hours. Ah, maybe I heard about it on twitter? Nope.

SO, I’m provisionally going with Coincidence, but watch the tumblr for predictions of future deaths.

Ye olde Kanye West controversy

Ye olde Kanye West controversy: If you’re one of the billions of people who didn’t even consider watching the VMA’s, but heard about something to do with Kanye West, well Gawker has your back, natch, with the video and the debate about whether the whole thing was staged. (I say YES!!) Update: Choire says, essentially, ‘it’s all good.’ Update #2: I am not even joking with you, Obama is on the record on this situation.

Les Paul died

Les Paul died. Not many people get credit for both inventing and perfecting the same thing, but with the Gibson Les Paul the man did exactly that. Before him, all electric guitars were essentially acoustics with pickups on them. People thought he was crazy to put pickups on a solid piece of wood, but not only did it succeed brilliantly, but nobody has ever made a guitar that looks or plays better. (As evidence, witness the so-called Dark Fire, Gibsons latest ill-conceived attempt to improve on a classic.) R.I.P. (Thanks, Steve.)

The Grateful Dead

I’m not much of a Grateful Dead fan, so it’s hard for me to work up a case for the Grateful Dead being the American band of the 20th century, despite the fact that the case that is there to be made. Let me sketch it, so that others might come along and flesh it out.

The Grateful Dead produced a massive body of work during their heyday, from the mid-1960s and the early 1980s. But their live performances were always much more important then their recorded work; this is the band that re-invented what a concert tour was, and how fans would relate to it. They criss-crossed the nation (and the world), performing hundreds of shows every year, such that anyone with even a passing interest got to see them preform live. And attendance to a Dead concert was not like anything else — it was to be sucked into a world of people seemingly living a lifestyle outside the mainstream. A virtual city of fans followed the band from city to city. To attend a concert was to become immersed in the Grateful Dead; it was never a casual experience.

But the real relevance of their music comes not from the fans deep commitment, but from the music itself. It had a depth that is seldom matched, and a breadth that probably never can be. Consider: the Grateful Dead were a touchstone of the counter-revolution, the massive upheaval of culturally and politically aware music that swept over the country in the late 1960s. They regularly explored the extreme strains of psychedelia, playing LSD-inspired music inspired by the most avant-garde of late-20th century atonal composers. Yet they just as easily embodied the most populist music. And they reached not just forward, but back in time. The Dead may be associated with trippy jams, but they were always equally at home playing protest folk, country, rock, bluegrass, rockabilly, and blues. That, my friends, is just about the full spectrum of 20th century music.

But it’s not just that they played is all — it’s that they made it all sound as though it were coming from the same cloth. Anyone (maybe) can play a punk song followed by a bluegrass song. But to make them sound like they’re the same thing is something else — it’s a gift that the Grateful Dead has not been sufficiently recognized for.

They are a band that is intensely loved by it’s still considerable fan base, but not sufficiently appreciated by the public at large. Perhaps it’s because of the synthesis they brought to all their music — their rock always had a foot in country, and their MOR always had that touch of psychedelia — that made it difficult for them to get consistent radio airplay. But as popular as they remain, it’s not incorrect to call the Dead underrated, because they deserve to be cherished by all Americans as a band that helped tie together our culture, and to make us appreciate that all things exist on a continuum, dude.

Paper scissors rock crack-pipe

paper scissors rock crack pipe ((The Unicorns will go down as the seminal band of the early 2000’s. They embody several of the key tendencies of the best bands of the period (Low-fi irreverence, deconstructed song structures that assemble disparate elements in a hyper-linear fashion while retaining coherency (this idea The Unicorns took farther then anyone else, actually), a blending of genres that was more seamless and, again, irreverent then anything before, the embracing of a thinly-veiled yet potent band mythology, a production approach that consciously eschewed the notion that everything should be made to sound as capital-A Awesome as possible, the ability to fucking ROCK, and irreverence), and they paired a dual-frontman lineup with songwriting that re-examined what the content of song lyrics can be (see also: The Talking Heads, and the entire genere of hip-hop), usually to hilarious/smart effect.) Trust me, I could drone on and on about why I love the Unicorns, but let us rather present three versions of their signature song, I Was Born (A Unicorn):

Exhibit A: Album Version. You can read along with the lyrics here. Note how the shifts in the song do not detract from the overall unity and momentum?

Exhibit B: A much earlier take from an earlier release, featuring the immortal line “… not a dog with wings.”

Exhibit C: A live version, notable for some fleshed out lyrics (like the “If you stop believing in…” part), rocking hard, and generally being smart about playing live.

You’ll notice the “paper scissors rock crack-pipe” refrain in the second version, and that’s really all I need for us to leave the parentheses behind.: )

Pardon the digression. So, for years I didn’t think that Paper Scissors Rock Crack-pipe was a real game, until, the other day, scraping against the bottom barrel of my Podcast playlist, I stumbled across this episode of the highly annoying WNYC program Radiolab. The program plods along, pondering whether the performance of athletes can be predicted as easily as a coin flip (it can’t), until, two-thirds in, the rules of the game are revealed! The crack-pipe is obscured as “the well” and the game is given a goofy name, but it’s unmistakable. So:

Rules: The game is played exactly like standard scissors/paper/rock, with the addition of a fourth option. I recommend playing the crack pipe as a simple extended index finger. The crack pipe beats both rock and scissors, and is beaten by paper. I shut the podcast off before the end, so I have no idea where Krulwich took this after observing that, no, you wouldn’t just always play the crack pipe, because then the other person would just keep playing paper. I assume he observed that this makes the game slightly — but not completely — asymmetrical. Of the four possible plays, there are two stronger (beat two of the other three plays) and two weaker (beat only one of the other three plays) options.

The original game is t best a mildly interesting psychological puzzle. The revised game introduces elements of game theory and generally complicates things.

Or does it? Let’s look at the four possible plays one by one. The crack-pipe is clearly a strong play, since it defeats two other plays. Paper, too, is a strong play, since it also defeats two other plays. Scissors only beats paper, but it’s the only play that beats paper, and based on what you’ve heard you can predict that your opponent will be playing paper pretty often, so scissors remains a strong play. What about rock? Well, poor rock still beats scissors, but we know that the crack-pipe beats scissors too. If you play rationally, it is never advantageous to play rock! And with rock effectively removed from the game, the advantage of paper and the crack-pipe disappears — both now only effectively defeat one other play. The game resolves back into a simple three-option play, crack-pipe having effectively replaced rock in the line up. All we’re left with is a song.