The Ideal Sandinista!

Holy Generation-Y, Batman!

Hello, old friend.

Two years ago when I started this blog, I posted this picture of my iTunes playlists, leading Jenn Achuff (now Jenn Wilkens; congratulations!) to ask what on Earth I’d done to sully the Clash’s epic album from 1980. The answer is simple: I’m trying to find out what it was originally supposed to sound like.

Ideal Sandinista! is a variation on a game called The Twelfth Albumwhere people try to create another, lost Beatles album from 1971, using its members’ solo work from that year. It’s equal parts mixology lesson and personality test. (Note: no matter who you play the game with, the album will include “Maybe I’m Amazed.” My mom, who was around back then and should have known, expressed some surprise that it wasn’t a Beatles song.)

The Clash is one of the greatest and most important bands ever; maybe they’re not quite up there with the Beatles, but they are in the same league as Zeppelin and the Beach Boys and almost certainly above Nirvana. They were the epitome of punk, but they also transcended punk. At the time, even squares could enjoy their work, not because they’d sold out, but because their greatness was able to reach people who otherwise wouldn’t be interested. For that we may thank the band’s other leader, Mick Jones.

Jones is the source of much of Sandinista‘s strength, but he is also the reason it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been. Both Jones and Joe Strummer were heavily influenced by another transcendent rocker, Bruce Springsteen, and when they found out that Springsteen was releasing The River as a double-album, Jones and Strummer both decided to one-up him by releasing Sandinista! as a triple album.

This clearly happened late in the making of the album, because so much of it is tedious filler. What could have been one of the greatest albums ever made was a two-and-a-half hour long mess, especially the second half. So where The Twelfth Album lets the listener put different ideas together to make a great album, Ideal Sandinista! lets you play editor and find the great album that was already there.

The first thing I did was get rid of duplicate tracks. There are four tracks on Sandinista! that are just duplicates of other songs reproduced in a headache-inducing dub style. They have to go. I also got rid of the new version of “Career Opportunities” sung by children.

This is where it gets complicated. Certain songs are obviously meant to come at the beginning or end of each side of the album. If I had to guess, I’d say the album’s lynchpin, “Police on My Back,” was originally the first track of side three. This means we must now remove five tracks that come before it and two that come after. Honestly, even pared down to a double album, there are six songs I’d still rather be without. Still, make sure each “side” is less than 27 minutes long, as that’s the maximum length a vinyl record will allow. This is my end result:

Side One
“The Magnificent Seven”
“Hitsville U.K.”
“Junco Partner”
“Ivan Meets G.I. Joe”
“Something About England”
“Rebel Waltz”

Side Two
“Somebody Got Murdered”
“One More Time”
“Lightning Strikes (Not Once But Twice)”
Up in Heaven (Not Only Here)
“Corner Soul”
“The Sound of Sinners”

Side Three
“Police on My Back”
“Midnight Log”
“The Equaliser”
“The Call Up”
“Washington Bullets”

Side Four
“Lose This Skin”
“Charlie Don’t Surf”
“Kingston Advice”
“The Street Parade”
“Version City”
“Shepherd’s Delight”

So there’s your answer, Jenn.


My Top 5 Stories from This American Life

When I started listening regularly to This American Life, I’d just turned 17. More than six years and nearly 200 episodes later, the show has spawned a television series, two theatrical events, a spinoff series (Planet Money), and half a dozen careers. In honour of their 500th episode, the crew of the show decided to share their favourite moments of the show, while I decided to pick my all-time top 5 stories. While there are many more stories I adore, these are particularly special and I’ll never forget where I was and how I felt when I first heard them.

5. “Robyn’s Dad’s Story”

Episode 400: Stories Pitched by Our Parents (2010)

For their 400th episode, the creators of This American Life decided to run an entire episode of stories pitched by their parents over the years. They were an incredibly diverse bunch of stories, ranging from a twee song about the Erie Canal to an investigation into the legal concept of corporate personhood, but by far the most popular segment was the story of Robyn Semien’s dad.

As a teenager in car-crazy 1950s Richmond, California, the elder Semien developed an almost supernatural talent for electronics. How did he use this power? To power his car through a rotary phone dial in the steering wheel, of course! In the process, he invented his own locks, power windows, and ignition system. If somebody wanted to do something in that car, they had to go through him.

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4. Jar Jar Head

Episode 232: The Real Story (2003)

In 1999, America was peaceful and prosperous, and let’s be honest, a little crazy. The American dream was finally coming to a new generation, but after John Hodgman attended an advanced screening of The Phantom Menace, everything started to go wrong. In order to save his country, Hodgman embarked on an ambitious plan: to rewrite the first installment of the Star Wars prequels.

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3. The Motherhood of the Traveling Pants

Episode 475: Send a Message (2012)

One day in the 1980s, the daughter of a large Italian family was expecting to give birth any day when her Nonna made her a little pair of pants. Lo and behold, the baby was a boy. Later, when her sister was pregnant, Nonna made her a dress– and the baby was a girl. Pretty soon, brothers, sisters, and cousins all got in on the act, making a prediction on Nonna’s behalf and sending their expecting relatives either the pants or the dress.

Nonna’s long gone, and now those babies are having babies of their own, will the pants still work?

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2. The Invisible Man vs. Hawk-Man

Episode 178: Superpowers (2001)

Flight or Invisibility? Which would you choose? When John Hodgman first posed this question, he discovered a lot about the people who answered, that these superpowers were unique in their way to tap into people’s everyday lives, fears, and sense of right and wrong.

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1. Brooklyn Archipelago

Episode 307: In the Shadow of the City (2006)

In the mid-2000s, Alex Zharov was a teenage celebrity in his Brooklyn neighbourhood. Looking for adventure anywhere he could, he and his older friends took a boat trip around Jamaica Bay and became shipwrecked. Thinking he was going ashore, Alex swam to find help, only to end up cold and bloodied on a desert island– only a mile or so from the towers of New York City.

I heard this story wasting time in Social Justice class in January 2007, and decided to go out and do something like that. I’m still not back.

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“Rockefeller vs. Kardashian:” How the New Class System Applies to America

A few days ago, I was entranced by the BBC’s revelation that there are now seven entrenched social classes in the UK, rather than the usual three, and just had to write about class in America.

First, a brief history: In the beginning, America was an overwhelmingly agrarian country, sparsely populated enough that even the poor could expect to live better than their European counterparts. The upper classes were politicians, writers, scientists, and all-around dilletantes, and the US Senate was in fact created as an American version of the House of Lords. There have been at least two class restructures in America: Once after the Civil War, when the gentleman farmers and dilettantes of yore were displaced at the top by captains of industry like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie; and once after World War II, when the GI bill made it possible for practically any young man to go to college free.

Since the war, and especially since the 1970s, we have begun to regress to an entrenched class system; most social mobility is downward as young people comprise a smaller portion of the population and find it harder to get a foot in the door, the cost of education has skyrocketed, and real wages have failed to increase over three decades.

So where are the aristocracy? You know, transatlantic-talking, stately home-living, senate seat-occupying, Groton and Ivy League-educated luvvies like we saw on Gilmore Girls? Where’s Giles Brandreth? They’re around, but only on the East Coast. It is said that in America, class is indistinguishable from wealth, but in the age of the internet that isn’t remotely true. Class in America is just as readily defined by cultural boundaries as Britain, possibly even to a greater extent: Because it’s so geographically spread out, America has never had a cohesive upper class. a huge section of them wouldn’t remotely qualify as “elite.” They mainly live on the west coast, possibly attend USC, winter in Miami, and have shit taste in music. These are the trashy rich. These are the Kardashians.

There have been many unintended consequences to the Great Recession: Wednesday night is the big night for social activity and not having a car is no longer completely insane, but most interesting is the division of economic class into more distinct cultural classes. Hipster vs. Douchebag, Rockefeller vs. Kardashian.

My grandparents didn’t go to college, my parents went later in life. I was the first one to be a freshman at 18, but there’s little hope that I will ever be able to live as well as my parents did. I’ve been applying for hundreds of jobs as a cashier, stock boy, whatever I can find, and in five years have never been accepted for a position. Having a bachelor’s degree could change those circumstances, but to what extent? But in now, suddenly, I’m still on a higher class level because I listen to Frankie Rose, watch Mad Men, and wear a tie.

Of course that doesn’t mean I’m giving up. I’ll be damned if my kids don’t go to Cambridge.

How to Graduate in Four Years

Everybody always talks about how great college is. They never say anything bad. But if you go in with the wrong attitude, or worse, go to the wrong university, life can be miserable. There are few shames greater than graduating late, but it’s a trap many people fall into. But there’s hope: Thanks to economic turmoil, drastic austerity measures and increased fees, fewer and fewer people are attending college. This means that a college degree is more valuable than it’s been in years; and if you have the means and will, getting through on time can be easy. All you have to do is follow these simple steps:

1. Push Yourself

Senior year of High School is often a mess. Your mind’s all over the place; there’s the secret fear of not getting into any universities, the equally common but less mundane fear of graduating a virgin. You have a job and your boss is creepy, and you expect to be fired any day. There’s the awkward position of feeling irrelevant in your own social circle, of being there but not really having anything to offer. This problem is only compounded if you’re the competitive type, and any move you make could hurt your academic position.

So you’ve made it to University orientation, and you’re picking classes. You choose a handful of core classes and maybe a major course on the fly. Take mine for example: Geology, Statistics, Critical Thinking, First Year English, and, hell, a Film Focus on Hitchcock. The attending administrator told you not to take more than twelve units this first semester, but Hitchcock’s just an extra two units and it’s on Saturday, so who cares?

The twist: You are right, and the administrator is wrong.

In the semester system, fifteen units– normally five classes– constitutes a full load for the semester. The administrator doesn’t want to start you off on more then twelve because she thinks it will be too much for you, and having been through so much shit this past year, you’re inclined to agree. After all, you’ll just make it up in the summer!

But you are a human being and don’t really work like that. If you start out taking fifteen units, it won’t seem any more difficult than twelve, but if you start with twelve and move up, it will be unbearable. Challenging yourself like that is necessary. You say you’ll make up the lost time in the summer, but what if you need that time to repeat a class you failed? And what if you can’t go in the summer? You can’t put these considerations off because you’ll fall further and further behind. I know it’s tough, but everybody else seems to be doing it and it’s not the high-jump. Consider the fact that some people are taking eighteen units a semester and acing every one.

2. Ask for Help

College classes can often be such a bore, you’re happy just to get out. I wasn’t doing great in Second Year English and my professor knew it. It was a morning class, so every time it was over, I got into that classic Mike Birbiglia situation:

“Maybe I should go ask him to clarify this stuff– or maybe I should get lunch.”

I’d regressed. Way back in freshman year of high school I learned that focusing on lunch= bad grades. We are human beings; our need for food always trumps our need to comprehend James Weldon Johnsons Diary of an Ex-Colored Man. So eat a good breakfast and ask for help.

3. Don’t Fool Yourself

At some point in High School, I convinced myself I could understand French. My Spanish at this point was competent, despite my performance in class, and because of the similarity I could easily read the online bulletins posted by Ramona girls online. Unfortunately, this didn’t translate into real French at SF State– the professor was Parisian, and spoke far faster than I could comprehend. My final performance was dreadful; so a year later I took Spanish and did great.

Don’t get me wrong, expanding your mind is great, but when it’s a core class, and it’s worth five semester units, better play it safe.

4. Take Every Class Seriously

There was no reason for me to take Dean Suzuki’s Origins of Rock class except that I thought I’d enjoy it and there weren’t any core or major classes available to me. For a while, it was the perfect blowoff class. You could sit in a huge, empty wood-paneled auditorium, listen to old music, and the guy’s enthusiasm was terrific– clearly this was his dream class. And it was the perfect morning class: no pressure, but there’s a sense you’re getting things done.

Then came the final.

“Okay, Berry Gordy, Hitsville USA, Stax/Volt, what am I forgetting? Why did I take this class!?”

It was not a blowoff class.

5. Get Out of the Dorms

There are few places as depressing as college dorms. When you signed up for them, you were anticipating something along the lines of Lowell House, a leatherbound palace to sit around the fire and discuss Apartheid. Instead, it’s a cold, faceless building where every drug addict is having sex and yet you are sitting alone watching The Venture Bros. and eating pumpkin pie with your combative roommate. Which is okay on its own, but unacceptable under these circumstances.

Though it’s tempting to think of a dorm as a proto-home, it’s a mistake to consider it anything other than a place to sleep. In high school, one’s time alone was restricted to empty classrooms, libraries, and secret club hangouts cannibalized from a teacher’s office. If you must have some free time during the day, it is best spent out in the open. You’ll meet people and you might even get some work done.

6. Get Involved

Extracurricular activities can be intimidating for the typical student– especially state schools where each activity seems tinged with liberal agitation. That kind of thinking has a ripple effect. For example, once at SF State I was watching some hippies occupy a block of classrooms, on the eve of finals week no less! I wandered over, sensing that I could at least get some footage out of it, when I noticed a cute girl leading the counter-protest, the head of the SF State College Republicans. As she explained the rather nefarious goals of the leading occupiers (namely that they were masking their poor academic performance), I took an interest in joining her cause, but she refused to give me any information on the suspicion that I was a Democratic spy sent to “get her.”

The lesson you might get from this is not to go to SF State, and that would be correct, but one also shouldn’t get into these kinds of political fights. A simple club organized around your major and a nice quiet religious organization should be acceptable. You should also join any honors society willing to have you. Personally, I had a great time taking part in comedy and storytelling on campus, so being in a club isn’t the only way to get involved.

I was also disappointed to discover that Cal State LA does not have a Hillel. Get on it, guys.

7. Prepare for the Education You Have, Not the One You Want

Everybody wants to go to Harvard when they’re ten, but that isn’t the reality. There are some places you simply shouldn’t go to, but wherever  you end up, you have to adapt, and if you aren’t happy with the way things are, you can try to change things from the inside. But you have to start with yourself. If all you do is focus on everything around you, it will only end up hurting you and your grades.

That is all.