What’s In A Bad Review?

Creative people who put their creativity out before the public have to deal with one thing that the rest of us don’t:  reviews of their work.  Whether it’s an artist overhearing comments about their paintings at a gallery, or a novelist, playwright, movie director, or musician reading newspaper reviews of their efforts, creative people have to get used to the idea that some people, at least, won’t like what they are doing.  And if the creative people can’t get past that issue, they probably aren’t in the right line of work.

Part of developing an artistic thick skin about bad reviews is realizing that the opinions of a critic are just that — one person’s opinion — and that critics are often just wrong.  In fact, sometimes a critic is so wrong about a particular piece of work that their opinions, read years later, seem comically and historically misguided.

beatles-abbey-road-album-label-appleI thought about this when I read about the New York Times review of the Beatles’ album Abbey Road, published right after it was released in 1969.  To his credit, the reviewer, Nik Cohn, found that the nine-song medley on side two was the most impressive music the Beatles had recorded since Rubber Soul — even though he thought the individual songs within the medley were “nothing special” and, for the most part, “pretty average stuff.”  In fact, he thought “some of the lyrics are quite painful,” and “most of the lines here are steals.”

Continuing his critique of the lyrics on side two, Cohn wrote:

“The great drawback is the words. There was a time when the Beatles’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On “Abbey Road,” you get only marshmallow.  * * *  On “Abbey Road” the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake. Clearly, the Beatles have now heard so many tales of their own genius that they’ve come to believe them, and everything here is swamped in Instant Art. ”

And remember that side two of Abbey Road is the side Cohn sort of liked.  The rest of the album, he wrote, was an “unmitigated disaster.”  Come Together, he concluded, “is intriguing only as a sign of just how low Lennon can sink these days.”  Cohn also got it wrong that John Lennon, and not Paul McCartney, sang Oh! Darling.  Cohn thought the two songs by George Harrison — those would be Something and Here Comes the Sun — were “mediocrity incarnate.”  Cohn opined that “[t]he badness ranges from mere gentle tedium to cringing embarrassment.”

I doubt that the Beatles, firmly atop the rock god firmament at the time, paid much attention to Nik Cohn’s views, and of course his opinions have been disproved by the test of time.  Abbey Road is generally regarded as one of the greatest rock albums of all time, and songs like Something, Here Comes the Sun, and Come Together are viewed as all-time classics beloved by millions for more than 50 years.

I guess I would say that Nik Cohn got it wrong.  When creative people are putting themselves out there for critics to chew on, it’s something they should keep in mind.

The Oldest Oral Tradition

No one knows when human speech began, but estimates are that human speech has existed for tens of thousands of years, and perhaps since as long as 150,000 years ago. Writing — a system which allowed humans to store and organize information without the need for human speech — didn’t exist until cunieform was created using clay tablets in what is now Iraq 3,200 years ago, followed quickly, and independently, by the development of writing in China and Mesoamerica.

So, how did our early human ancestors bridge that gap and preserve information for those tens of thousands of years? Obviously, they did so through oral communication and memorization. Through talks around campfires and in hunter-gatherer villages, the early humans learned of the useful plants and herbs in their areas and how they could be used to treat illness or injury, were taught about successful techniques for hunting prey, and undoubtedly spoke of legends and heroes and creation stories. The Iliad and the Odyssey, attributed to the blind poet Homer, were part of the ancient Greek oral tradition and were told for generations before being reduced to writing. The ancient tale of Gilgamesh and countless creation tales also date back to the era before the written word. The evidence is that the oral tradition can be a remarkably durable way of preserving and conveying information.

Scientists believe they may have discovered the oldest existing piece of oral tradition on Earth — one that dates back 37,000 years and countless generations. It is the tale of Budj Bim told by the Gunditjmara people in eastern Australia, one of whom is shown above. Like other Aboriginal peoples in Australia, the Gunditjmara have a rich oral tradition in which all kinds of ecological information is conveyed through tellings and re-tellings. In the story in question, an ancient creator-being is transformed into a volcano called Budj Bim. Scientists have now determined that two volcanoes erupted in the area in which the Gunditjmara lived 37,000 years ago, and suspect that the tale of Budj Bim is actually an account of the explosions. And if their hypothesis is true, the correlation of the legend and the volcanic eruptions would be confirming evidence that humans lived on Australia 37,000 years ago.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to sit down with a member of the Gunditjmara and hear her tell the tale of Budj Bim, as she heard it from her mother who heard it from her mother, understanding that it was told in the same way, in an unbroken line of generations, going back 37,000 years? It would be almost like sitting around the campfire with our early human ancestors, hearing the tale directly in their voice. I would like to hear that tale.

 

 

An Introduction To The World Of Letterboxing

On our recent visit to the Edgar M. Tennis Preserve on Deer Isle, Russell, Betty and I not only had our first exposure to the tremendous scenic beauty found on the Preserve, but I also had my first exposure to the world of letterboxing.

Letterboxing, according to the Urban Dictionary, is an interesting combination of hiking, orienteering, travel, and sharing adventure with fellow hikers.  The goal in the letterboxing world is to find waterproof letterboxes that are kept in scenic places like the Tennis Preserve — some of which are harder to find than others.  When you find the letterbox, you’re supposed to leave a message, stamp the message book in the letterbox, and also stamp your own letterboxing book so you can keep a record of all the letterboxes you’ve visited.  Not being aware of the world of letterboxing, or that the Tennis Preserve had a letterbox, I didn’t have a letterboxing book with me when we came across the Tennis Preserve letterbox, so I couldn’t stamp my own book.  We did, however, leave a message and used the cool shell stamp to record our visit to the letterbox.  Fortunately for us, the Tennis letterbox wasn’t hard to find, either.

It was fun to thumb through the Tennis Preserve letterbox notebook to see how had visited — we were surprised to learn that somebody had been there before us on the day of our visit, even though we were hiking early in the morning — and I think letterboxing would be an enjoyable, and very healthy, hobby.  Any pastime that gets you out of the indoor world and into the fresh air in places like the Tennis Preserve has got to be beneficial, both physically and mentally.  And the stamps are pretty cool, too.

Looking For Amusement?

The tripadvisor website has come out with its ranking of the best amusement parks in the world.  Universal Studios Islands of Adventure — a park that the kids and I hit multiple times back in the ’90s, a few decades and no doubt a number of new attractions ago — got the number 1 ranking, and the Disney parks, both in the United States and abroad, fared well.

5e4b37fa-c64b-4b58-8521-659e3ee4bc00-large16x9_cedarpointnewcoasterBut as I scanned the list, I couldn’t help but notice an obvious omission:  Cedar Point, on the north coast of Ohio.  It’s not only not in the top 10, it’s not in the list of the top 25 parks in the world at all.  To find Cedar Point, you have to go to the ranking of parks just in the United States and click down to find “the Point” coming in at number 18.  It ranks behind parks I’ve never heard of, like “Santa’s Village” in Jefferson, New Hampshire, “Knoebels Amusement Resort” in Elysburg, Pennsylvania, and “Bay Beach Amusement Park” in Green Bay, Wisconsin — none of which look all that exciting, frankly, from the photos that accompany the rankings.

For most amusement park aficionados, and particularly roller coaster buffs, Cedar Point is one of the premier destinations in the world.  In fact, some people say it’s got the best collection of roller coasters and other thrill rides, anywhere.  If you go to Cedar Point on a fine, blue-sky summer day — and if you love coasters, it’s basically a requirement — you’ll see cars and RVs from across the country in the parking lot and hear every kind of language being spoken by visitors.  And many of those visitors will come back, year after year.  Can “Santa’s Village” say the same?

It all goes to show you that you should take rankings with a grain of salt, and exercise your own judgment based on your own interests.  Want to hang with elves?  “Santa’s Village” no doubt is right up your alley.  Want to experience the “It’s a Small World After All” ride until the annoying theme song is permanently seared into your brain?  Go the Disney route.  But if you want to go somewhere where there are great roller coasters, old and new, at every turn, and get your adrenaline supercharged as you rush along at 60 m.p.h. and do loops and circles and deal with serious g forces?  That’s where I’d go, and that means getting to the Point.

The Newest Tallest, Fastest, and Longest

Designers are constantly pushing the envelope of roller coaster construction, so that pretty much every year there’s the announcement of a new “tallest, fastest, and longest” coaster.  This year, the honor goes to the Canada Wonderland theme park in Ontario, where the Yukon Striker coaster will be opening.  (Given the weather this winter, it’s probably going to be a few months before the grand opening, so coaster fanatics have got time to make their travel plans.)

maxresdefaultThe description of the Yukon Striker ride in the attached article sounds, well, pretty intense.  For one thing, it’s 3 minutes and 25 second long and covers more than a half mile of track.  The ride will reach top speeds of 80 miles per hour, has one drop of 245 feet — that’s more than two-thirds of a football field — and an underground tunnel that, according to the photo, opens in an amusement park lake.  The article states, somewhat breathlessly:  “At the top of the drop, you’ll be held for three seconds over the 90-degree drop before you drop down into the underwater tunnel, and there’ll even be a complete 360-degree loop for an extra adrenaline rush.”  (Like that will be needed!)

Oh yeah — the ride also has four different “inversions,” where riders are turned upside down before being turned right-side up.

The Yukon Striker won’t achieve the fastest speeds of any roller coaster in the world, an honor that’s currently held by a coaster in Abu Dhabi, but it will be the fastest “dive” coaster, “where there’s a straight vertical drop which sees riders facing down.”

I like roller coasters, and it’s interesting to read about the newest advances in coasters, but I really wonder whether we’re reaching the point where coasters are eclipsing normal human tolerances.  A more than three minute ride that jets you along at speeds faster than the speed limit on most highways, puts you through 360-degree loops, plunges you straight down into an amusement park lake, and then flips you over and back four times sounds like a lot more than my psyche — and stomach — can stand.  I also think that, in their zeal to be the highest, fastest, and longest, roller coaster designers are ignoring other creative design elements that make coasters exciting and interesting without torturing riders and exploring the limits of human endurance.

I’m sure there will always be thrill-seekers who want to ride the newest “tallest, fastest, and longest” coaster, but it will be interesting to see whether, after a ride or two, most visitors at the Canada Wonderland park pass on the Yukon Striker and try to find their amusement park fun somewhere else.

Theater In The Ground

Last night Kish and I joined Dr. Science and the GV Jogger at the Franklinton Playhouse for the world premiere performance of Dirt, a play by Creighton James.  Dirt tells the story of two brothers who return to the structure where they killed and buried their father, needing to dig up his remains to avoid their discovery when an immediately impending construction project requires tearing down the structure and excavating the area.  The two brothers clearly have been affected by the killing of their father, and let’s just say that, as the play progresses, they end up discovering a lot more than dear old Dad’s bones.

But the purpose of this post isn’t to discuss the curious psychological journeys of Rusty and Jimmy in Dirt, but rather to note what interesting and flexible performance space is afforded by the Franklinton Playhouse.  When we last visited the Playhouse, for a play featuring a debate between Thomas Jefferson, Charles Dickens, and Leo Tolstoy about Christianity, the theater was configured so that patrons sat around a small, spartan, raised stage.  For Dirt, the former stage had been torn down and a completely different, much bigger and more elaborate stage and set had been constructed.  Instead of the former theater in the round, you might call the current configuration theater in the ground.  The stage and set included doors, windows, and an area where the characters could dig, patron seating on three different sides of the stage, and dirt — lots and lots of dirt.  (In fact, one of the “special thanks” in the program went out to Kurtz Bros. Mulch & Soils.)

Red Herring Productions, which is presenting Dirt as part of its ambitious, 10-play production schedule for 2019, tore down the prior stage and built, and then dirtied up, the current one in only 18 days.  That’s pretty impressive, but the fact that the theater itself could be so radically reconfigured is pretty impressive, too.  It makes you want to come to a future Red Herring performance of a different play, as much to see what the theater looks like as to watch what’s being portrayed on stage.

Dueling Pianos

Last night we had a mid-winter, get out of the house night on the town with family members. After dinner at the Tip Top, we Ubered down to the Big Bang Bar in the Arena District for a Dueling Pianos performance arranged by Sister Rocker. I wasn’t even aware of the place, but then the Arena District is full of surprises.

When Sister Rocker first suggested a trip to see Dueling Pianos, I initially thought it would be like Ferrante and Teicher, or perhaps cocktail lounge piano music. I could not have been more wrong! This was about as raucous as piano music (and a drum set) can get, with three guys rotating on stage in staggered one-hour shifts and pounding away at the keyboards of two grand pianos. They took “suggestions” (song requests unaccompanied by money) and “requests” (song requests submitted with moolah) — guess which ones were going to get played, and which would get crumpled up and tossed? — and they played everything from vintage Jerry Lee Lewis to country to ’80s MTV staples to last year’s hip hop hits. And there’s a lot of audience participation, both through singing along and through birthday and anniversary celebrants and bachelorette parties going up on stage to dance and perform.

It makes for a rollicking time and it’s obviously popular, because the place was packed — as crowded a venue as I’ve seen in years, in fact. If you reserve a table, as we did, expect to feel a bit like a sardine, because they really pack people in. It’s a young crowd, too; we were the oldest attendees by far. And the amount of alcohol consumed by the patrons — the better to lubricate the vocal cords and loosen up lascivious onstage dance moves, I guess — was colossal. This was a crowd that was ready to rock out and fight the mid-winter blahs with some liquid-fueled entertainment.

Dueling Pianos isn’t something I’d do every weekend, but it’s a nice entertainment option to have on a cold winter night.