Thursday, December 30, 2010


A vintage New Year's card. Long before email and Facebook and cell phones, people actually wrote letters and sent cards for the holidays like this beautiful example from a bygone era. But you knew that.

Monday, December 27, 2010


In this cold stretch of the holidays that's hammered like a shim between Christmas and New Years you may experience a kingly mood swing fueled by all the liquor and sweets and family visits, the fruitcakes and seasonal ales and figgy puddings and whiskey, barrels of whiskey, and you may find yourself on a bio-rhythmic roller-coaster that pitches and sways and whip-snaps and lands you flat on your ass feeling a desperate need for something true and non-sweetened and simple that doesn't taste like peppermint--and that brings you to Wilco. You need something acoustic and unadorned and true. Something that doesn't make your ears ring, your heart race or give you visions of sugarplums. These old boys--the bastards of Uncle Tupelo, the band that kicked off a genre--are the cure. Kick your shoes off. Set a spell. Have a listen.

Thursday, December 23, 2010


This is brilliant! Shoppers in a food court can't believe their eyes and ears when a talented flash mob pops up unannounced to sing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel's Messiah. This unsponsored act of art reminds us--even when we're mind-dulled with consumerism, worn out from routine, and trapped in the lock-step of daily life--that anything is possible. In this context, singing the Hallelujah Chorus can be a subversive act. Thanks to these operatic guerrillas, obviously talented and well-trained, we're blindsided by a magical moment and forced to look up from our ruts. Here is ART, without warning, where we least expect it, far from the galleries and museums and concert halls, with no explanation, no wall-text, no hand-out or guide telling us how to feel, giving us the proper response. This can't be right. It just doesn't fit. Some might feel confused or inconvenienced or even cynical, but some will feel the thrill. The axe cuts through the ice. We're suddenly outside the box.

Thanks to these operatic guerrillas for making it happen. Good show! And thanks to Wendy, our resident opera fan, for finding this clip. Now before you go back to your normal programming, make a plan to create something beautiful and unexpected. And give it to someone. Merry Christmas!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010


It was Christmas Eve babe
In the drunk tank
An old man said to me, won't see another one
And then he sang a song
The Rare Old Mountain Dew
I turned my face away
And dreamed about you

Got on a lucky one
Came in eighteen to one
I've got a feeling
This year's for me and you
So happy Christmas
I love you baby
I can see a better time
When all our dreams come true

They've got cars big as bars
They've got rivers of gold
But the wind goes right through you
It's no place for the old
When you first took my hand
On a cold Christmas Eve
You promised me
Broadway was waiting for me

You were handsome
You were pretty
Queen of New York City
When the band finished playing
They howled out for more
Sinatra was swinging,
All the drunks they were singing
We kissed on a corner
Then danced through the night

The boys of the NYPD choir
Were singing "Galway Bay"
And the bells were ringing out
For Christmas day

You're a bum
You're a punk
You're an old slut on junk
Lying there almost dead on a drip in that bed
You scumbag, you maggot
You cheap lousy faggot
Happy Christmas your arse
I pray God it's our last

I could have been someone
Well so could anyone
You took my dreams from me
When I first found you
I kept them with me babe
I put them with my own
Can't make it all alone
I've built my dreams around you

copyright 1988 Shane MacGowan & Jem Finer

Monday, December 20, 2010


Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein appear in this promo for "Portlandia," an upcoming IFC series that spoofs and celebrates the city of Portland, Oregon. If you've ever lived in Portland you'll find this clip especially hilarious (maybe not so much if you still live there) but having been born and raised there I can vouch that this hits the mark. Sophisticates may celebrate its upscale food scene and impressive cultural additions, but there is a movement against such gentrification that is embodied in the ubiquitous bumper sticker seen in the Rose City: "Keep Portland Weird." This snarky little sticker recognizes the underground tradition of the city. Despite the "yupscale" changes, Portland will never be LA--and that's a good thing. What draws droves of people to PDX is a gritty, affordable working city that exists on a manageable scale. Artists and musicians have been moving here for years, especially since Seattle and San Francisco have become so terribly expensive, and there is a powerful indie music scene that attracts national attention. Okay, maybe these smart-asses from LA have gone too far in their parody As usual, the Angelinos tend to think they've got their finger on the pulse of American culture because they've got Hollywood and TV studios, but that's not how culture works...there are plenty of smaller towns with much more vibrant music and arts scenes. At any rate, if Portland is scoffed I'll defend it--though secretly I can laugh at some of its more recent affectations. All in all, I'm siding with the weird Portland.

Sunday, December 19, 2010


Chef Mario Batali is making Baccala a la Vesuviana--salt cod with tomatoes and capers--a traditional Italian preparation served on Christmas eve as part of The Feast of the Seven Fishes.

On that night, Italians (and Italian Americans who keep the old customs alive) devour an amazing seafood feast of baccala, calamari, shrimp, clams, crab, oysters, whitefish--or some other combination that adds up to seven. The tradition goes back to forever.

According to Epicurious, "the Feast is a meal served in Italian households on La Vigilia (Christmas Eve). In many parts of Italy, the night is traditionally a partial fast, during which no meat should be served. But in true Italian style, this proscription has morphed into something very unfastlike indeed: course after course of luxurious seafood dishes, often as many as 7, 10, or even 13. 'No one's quite sure of the significance of the number," says Batali. 'Some families do seven for the sacraments. Some do ten for the stations of the cross. And some even do 13 for the 12 apostles plus Jesus.'"

Whatever your heritage, and whether or not you even celebrate Christmas, you should be proud of your history. Some folks believe everyone should lose all traces of their past and assimilate into one big homogenized America, but it's nice to keep some of the old traditions alive. Besides, that would be boring. Wherever you may have come from, originally, and whatever you may believe, you have cause to celebrate. Have a happy holiday season.

For more Italian Christmas information and recipes, visit the Epicurious Holiday Guide here.

Friday, December 17, 2010


A couple drunk uncles at the holiday party. That's what it seems like when Frank and Der Bingle start hitting the egg nog and singing. The uncles used to gather at Grandma's house, a jolly old fashioned crew that commandeered the couch and drank whiskey and nibbled at tiny anti-pasta plates Grandma had prepared--cheese and salami and olives--and maybe a few tiny bowls of Planter's peanuts. We cousins--children of Sputnik and rock music and the post-war baby boom--played in the back rooms, wired on Christmas adrenaline--and to us the uncles seemed ancient as Old Growth trees. Lights from the Christmas trees sparkled in their watery eyes. They chortled at their own jokes and might shake your hand and ask how old you were, and make some joke and then send you on your way. They were from another era--older than our parents, who were part of a newer world, voted for JFK and owned a bookstore--no, the old timers were World War Two guys from the forties who wore big pants and had barely stopped wearing hats (some still did) and they had a backlog of holiday memories to ruminate about after a few drinks in front of Grandma's Christmas tree. Grandma was even older, if that was possible. She'd come from the Old Country and raised nine kids and weathered mining towns and countless hardships and prohibition (with Grandpa, who had gone from blackballed miner to restaurant owner to bootlegger), and she remained a tough old bird who spoke broken English and walked with a limp and didn't believe in sloth and unnecessary pleasures. Grandma refilled glasses and tiny peanut plates and served candies that were sour (the punishment and penance that must accompany pleasure) and gave us children a bracing shot of Creme de Menthe at midnight. To think about it now, Christmas probably meant something different to everyone in the room back then. Maybe it still does. Now the trees are decorated much in the same way, and there are candles and cotton snow and maybe a swag like olden times--and Mom has her tiny Victorian village atop the piano and her famous fruitcake from days of yore (and a newer version, closer to panforte)--but the new kids in town are text-messaging and surfing the web, and they never stray far from a computer or a television screen of some kind--and yes they're wonderful kids but they probably look at those of us sitting on the couch with our drinks in our hands much in the same way we looked at our old uncles--as Old Growth timbers from ancient times and a distant and faraway places. This time around there will still be several generations present, and a wonderful holiday spirit--and still the labyrinthine details of pulling off a successful holiday as people bustle about, drive in from out of town, cook meals and play music and refill drinks and present endless platters of food. I'll be one of those uncles this time, and after a couple egg nogs I'll think back at my Christmases over the years, as everyone must. And yes, once again Christmas will mean something different to everyone in the room but we will all be together.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


Elvis Presley sings a couple Christmas songs in a loosey-goosey jam session during his '68 Comeback Special. It had been a tough few years for the King. His last number one single was back in 1962, and now the swinging psychedelic sixties were under way and bands like the Beatles and the Stones were running the show. What happened? After coming out of the army, Elvis had gotten lost in a cheesy swamp of Hollywood teen movies, but now he had a chance to make one last stand. He got a special lined up on NBC, and he went into training. He trained hard. Maybe only blue-haired old ladies would watch it, but once upon a time Elvis had been a rocker with lots of sass, a swivel-hipped heartthrob who tore down the house with his gyrations and his soulful singing, and he wanted to get one last shot at it. People were stunned when he emerged from the shadows looking mean and lean and dipped in leather. He sang a few big production numbers, and he had a good time jamming with his old band. This was the last glimpse of greatness before Graceland became his personal prison and he spiraled downward into a zombie half-life of pills and booze and fried banana sandwiches only to die like a bloated Las Vegas lounge blimp in a white jumpsuit and a cape like a sad sack superhero down on his luck. Here, for a few golden moments, he was great again.

Santa Claus was back in town that night.

Saturday, December 11, 2010


As you can imagine, actual photographs of Santa Claus are exceedingly rare. There are plenty of of fake Santas, of course, and this time of year they can be found sitting in department stores and ringing bells on street corners, but these are only Santa's helpers. These helpers are frequently photographed, and these photographs are virtually worthless. Actual photographs of the real Santa exist, and according to some people the government has known about them for years. Some deny their existence, and some say they were destroyed or classified Top Secret and hidden in Area 51 by the military--along with the wreckage of an alien spaceship and a stag movie starring Marilyn Monroe--but a whistleblower recently leaked the photographs and the world can judge for itself. The photograph above is reported to be St. Nicholas early in his career when he wasn't so secretive. The photograph below, showing Santa loading a truck, was reportedly taken with a hidden camera by a disgruntled elf. The elf, and his accomplice (shown grinning on the truckbed), were summarily fired, but somehow this picture made it out of Toytown.

Santa's last known public appearance was at an orphanage in New Jersey in the 1930s, and while the good man requested no pictures someone snapped a surprised St. Nick handing out books and advent calenders to orphans.

Of course, we have no way of verifying that these are actual photographs of Santa Claus, but they seem pretty authentic to us. What do you think? Is this the real Santa Claus? there a Santa Claus at all? We quote the newsman Francis Pharcellus Church in his famous answer to a little girl who asked that question.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! how dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished.

Friday, December 10, 2010


Here's another version on the Rankin/Bass stop-action Rudolph classic (shown below) and this time it's Martin Scorsese's take on the Christmas tale. As you might expect, this is a tougher take on Toytown, a place where cutting somebody out of the reindeer games could get you whacked. If these toys could talk...they'd keep their big mouths shut. Forget about it.

Thursday, December 9, 2010


"Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," the Rankin/Bass stop-action Christmas classic, teams Rudolph with little Hermey, and Elf who wants to be a dentist. Together they discover an Island of Misfit Toys, and with the help of an old prospector, Yukon Cornelius, foment a revolution. Throwing off the shackles of repression, the toys set up a liberated zone free of exploitation, class and wage slavery, an open society where toys can finally escape the tyranny of Toyland bosses and express themselves fully for the first time. Their final victory is celebrated in song by Wobbly the Snowman (played by Burl Ives) in the holiday classic, "Have a Holly Jolly Christmas (You Have Nothing to Lose But Your Chains)!"

We hope you like this heartwarming holiday story--and its radical sub-text--as much as we do!

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


Thinking about John Lennon on the anniversary of his death. John was killed by a deranged nut in New York City on this day thirty years ago as he signed an autograph. We all remember him differently. There were many John Lennons--from the early days of John as clever wise-cracking Beatle, the poet of A Spaniard in the Works, middle-period songwriter Lennon crying "Help!," primal screaming artist Lennon expressing his fears and joys, house husband and hounded political activist taking on the Vietnam War and the evil Nixon machine. There will be eulogies today, and most of them will strip the man of controversy and candy-coat his memory. We're going with controversy--a fierce political song for the holiday season--since the dragons John tried to slay with his art and his wit are still alive and well. Another tragedy would be remembering him as just a pop star, and diluting his powerful music and memory to a cute little bio on the evening news that misses the point entirely. As another Englishmen once lamented, "the good is oft interred with the bones." Now John is safely dead, and the powers that be can rest easier. Maybe we all can, since he urged us all to do our part for peace and justice and that's not always easy. As the man said, War is over--if you want it.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010


If you grew up in the 1960s, you remember the Andy Williams Christmas Special. Bland as vanilla custard, and shot on a studio sound stage sparkling with fake snow, the show featured Andy, in a thick winter sweater and sporting an incongruous tan, crooning his way through Christmas carols with a cast of extras, dancers and singers. The whole affair probably cost more than Vietnam (and probably shared the same sponsors), but that was okay because the world out there, beyond the studio walls, was never allowed to intrude on Andy's world. For all we knew the Christmas Special was beamed from another planet entirely, but that was fine with us since it signaled the holiday season like no other harbinger, and many a hardened, cynical bastard was softened by its over-produced invocation of the Christmas past, Dickens via Studio City, the kind of good clean family fun you might find at Branson today. Sure, this treacle made your fillings ache, but if you stayed with it past the initial sugar shock the holiday spirit kicked in like peppermint mescaline and you were suddenly tripping Christmas balls.

How we loved the Christmas Special. Sure, we knew better. Andy was cheesy and old-fashioned and the songs were corny but we liked it the way we liked Christmas window displays downtown or those TV commercials with Santa riding a Norelco shaver. It was kitsch before we knew the word, and sure, maybe Cronkite was reporting war and assassinations, civil rights and psychedelia, student demonstrations and Black Power, but Andy's world was safe and cozy even if the real world was going up in flames, a magical winter wonderland where you could ease off your slippers, sip an egg nog, and drift into nostalgic holiday reverie unhindered by anything even vaguely resembling reality. You're probably too hip and jaded to dig this now, or too dishonest to admit it, but try to play along and imagine another time in a world long ago that never really existed, and get your cheer on. A'ight?

Monday, December 6, 2010


Something in a lighter vein, a cartoon by David Kazzie dealing with writing novels. These aren't Pixar production values, by any means, and the robotic voices are annoying, but as crude as it may seem this little cartoon manages to hit some ringing truths and elucidate some commonly held misconceptions. Here at the Hammer offices, we were rolling in the aisles. Like the best observational humor (and the worst dentist) this really hit a nerve--partly because we still believe it is possible to write a meaningful, challenging novel (there are still wonderful books being written) and partly because we are, in fact, writing one. We're stealing moments away from jobs and televisions and loved ones to hammer together an entirely made-up story (it's amazing how many intelligent people you meet who only read non-fiction, as if there is nothing "true" in a novel, meaning nothing to be learned), and we're just bold enough to believe it's worth the trouble. When will it be finished? When it's done. The trick is doing it right. It's not as easy as most people (including our animated bear) think. It takes heavy construction as well as fine carpentry. There are complicated characters and plots (in fact, several) and a strong narrative pull (profluence, John Gardner called it) but at this stage of construction one has the impulse to put up wallpaper in a room before the entire house has been built (to make a little showcase, perhaps) but the impulse must be resisted. It takes slow and steady work, checking the blueprints from time to time, and, lacking the reassurance and feedback that smaller pieces afford, something like faith. Anyway, the work is going well. There are sturdy weight-bearing walls and a strong foundation, and with any luck the sheetrock will go up without a hitch and the roof will hold water. Ha ha. Watch the video.

Friday, December 3, 2010


A passionate speech from Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont that pulls no punches.


The Friends of the Nib and Fantagraphics is proud to present "Medieval Thinkers," an eye-popping exhibition of comix art at the Fantagraphics Bookstore--part of the holiday festivities celebrating its 4th year anniversary in Georgetown. Live music and art! Opening Saturday, December 11, 6:00 to 9:00PM.

This will be an amazing show and I'll be attending as a fan as well as a participant. If you're interested in seeing a showcase of some of the best comic artists out there--masters of the form as well as talented emerging artists--drop by and see original work by Peter Bagge, Bruce Bickford, D.J. Bryant, Chris Cilla, Max Clotfelter, Eleanor Davis, Kim Deitch, Heidi Estey, Kelly Froh, Justin Green, Gerland Jablonski, Megan Kelso, Jason T. Miles, Nate Neal, Bob Rini, Zak Sally, Dash Shaw, Matt Tamaru, Frew Weing, Jim Woodring, Mary Woodring, Max Woodring, Martine Workman and Chris Wright. Curated by Jason T. Miles and Max Clotfelter for Friends of the Nib. Yup, this will be a killer show.

Fantagraphics Bookstore & Gallery
1201 S. Vale Street, Seattle, WA 98108

Thursday, December 2, 2010


Some say Quentin Tarantino changed the face of contemporary film by combining dark comedy and violence in the same hip mixture, but Arthur Penn did that with "Bonnie and Clyde" back in 1967. Penn's film was a scandalous hit and was met with hand-wringing and condemnation from the upright (uptight?) critics and cultural watchdogs of its day, much in the way "Reservoir Dogs" and "Pulp Fiction" shocked and delighted audiences when they were released. Instead of surf guitars and oldies, Penn used bluegrass music--specifically the Foggy Mountain Breakdown performed by Flatt and Scruggs--which served the same purpose as a distancing device, an upbeat lively tune seemingly at odds with the somber subject matter--a hip twist of our expectations. It suggested the film was light and comical, much the way Dick Dale and the oldies undermined the bloodshed in "Pulp," and took us by surprise as we were pulled further and further into the void without the standard Hollywood musical cues helping us understand what we should be feeling. No, this was cold-blooded, and no overly dramatic score would satisfy this new take on American violence.

And violence. Both "Bonnie and Clyde" and the Tarantino films brought violence to a new level--or did they? That's how we experienced it, if it happened or not. In both cases, the films were derided fr their violence and used as examples of how society had gone to hell, how constant exposure to violence had a numbing effect, and how the directer (either one) was making light of a dreadful situation and should be ashamed of himself. The scene everyone remembers from "Reservoir Dogs" is over in a flash, but the scene had such a powerful effect because of a long, tense build-up. The torturer dances around the room to "Stuck in the Middle with You," while brandishing a straight razor. Like the shower sequence in "Psycho," you think you saw more than you did because of effective use of suspense. Plenty of worse things happen every night on television, but you don't feel it like this--so who is really numbing us to violence? Violence is ugly and unsettling, and somehow worse when it's portrayed in an antiseptic TV world where nobody bleeds and no one's hair get mussed. The body count could be higher, but the camera doesn't linger. You'll be safe soon enough, because every few minutes there's a whole rack of advertisements to interrupt the mood. Check out the advertisement for Taster's Choice up above--this you WON"T see on television.

Anyway, Penn didn't beat Tarantino to every punch, and Quentin deserves credit for writing offhand seemingly random dialog, scrambling the chronology, and tweaking the old fashioned genre tropes he's obviously familiar with--having teethed on movies as a film geek working in a video store. In any case, they roasted Tarantino this week and reportedly Quentin drank out of Uma's stiletto. Weird and kinky, sure, but that's his stock in trade. Even so, I'd have preferred a glass.