Format: modern Japanese rock and modern Japanese rock talk
Episode duration: 35m-2h
My friends who taught English in Japan in the nineties insist that the glory days have gone. They describe having stood in the blast radius of the last and most exciting flowering of Japanese popular culture, that which burnt out with the twentieth century. Of course, older Japanese scholars I meet insist that, on the contrary, the country stopped generating exciting works of art around the end of the sixties. I’ve never met him, but somewhere, a supercentenarian Japanophile surely insists that nothing of note has come out of Japan since before the Second World War. Each of these laments applies to a different facet of the culture: the music twenty years ago, the film and literature fifty years ago, and eighty years ago... oh, I don’t know, netsuke?
None of this rearguard action for the mind or minds behind It Came from Japan [iTunes], the music podcast of the eponymous music agency. It Came from Japan itself has the unusual and highly geographically specific mission of, and I quote, “bring the freshest, creamiest Japanese bands to the UK.” Rock bands, specifically. And yes, the UK, specifically. An unusual pairing, you might think, but upon reflection the countries have much in common: small, islands, bound by a vast and often tacit superstructure of position and obligation, valuing politeness yet incubating youth cultures of studied rudeness. In both lands over the past half-century, these last have tended to execute their rebellion in one form especially: rock music.
On It Came from Japan, you hear modern Japanese rock music, you hear an Englishman talk about modern Japanese rock music, and you hear that same Englishman interview the particular Japanese responsible for the modern rock music. If names like Hotel Mexico, Trippple Nippples, and Donkey Vegetable Voxxx already mean something to you, then read no further — here is the podcast you desire. The name Shonen Knife, to which the band attached gets a reasonable amount of play on this show, probably means at least a little to you. Though of a previous generation of popularity than most of the other bands showcased here, Shonen Knife does indeed represent several of their qualities: blunt simplicity with a counterintuitive edge of experimentalism, known in the west or trying to be, of a certain age, female.
While this show offers tracks from much more than girl-bands-turned-woman-bands, the interviews strike me as slanting in that direction. Tokyo-based host Daniel Robson regularly connects over Skype with Japanese rockers, usually ladies, who make or contribute to the records he spins. Often, he issues warnings to the listener beforehand: she doesn’t speak much English, I had to edit this down a lot, she had to memorize her answers, she read her answers off a card, she read the wrong answers off a card, etc. I take these conversations less as segments meant for information delivery as conceptual exercises, although the halting, quizzically toned English in which the guests speak (and the chuckle of quasi-comprehension with which Robson sometimes responds) makes for a much more endearing experience than the average conceptual exercise.
Still, even the least linguistically capable J-rocker here speaks English with a damn sight more mastery than I speak Japanese, although I’m working on it. Robson also seems to possess a far more comprehensive knowledge of Japanese rock than most mortals could hope to possess. If there exists an easier way to dive into any segment of the genre, I can’t imagine it. Japanese rock, like the Japanese cellphone, has spent quite some time evolving its own peculiar set of subspecies in Galapagosian isolation. It Came from Japan focuses on Japanese rock that sounds always mildly goofy, sometimes slightly harsh, often sonically adventurous, and occasionally aggressive, but not in an apparently angry way. You could do much worse to diversify your musical portfolio. Most of us do worse with every trip to Spotify.
Format: a man speaks of many things — in Spanish
Episode duration: 5m-30m
Frequency: maybe not a going concern, but 71 episodes exist
So here’s one entirely in Spanish. If you don’t understand that language, I won’t stop you scrolling on, but if you understand even a little bit of it — or if you want to understand all of it — you might consider having a listen. On La Casa Rojas [RSS] [iTunes], the Peruvian-born, St. Paul-based Spanish teacher Luis Rojas talks about events in his life, events in the world at large, events in history, and the many vagaries of language-learning. A simple premise, to be sure, but I listen to a great many language podcasts, and at least half of them complicate themselves straight out of usefulness. This one has held to a certain purity. You want to learn Spanish? Then hey, listen to a man speak Spanish for a while.
Put the foreign linguistic element aside — not that it makes much sense to do so here — and this show would seem to follow a common but usually unfortunate podcasting form: some guy talking about stuff. But even when I began listening, my Spanish rusted to near-uselessness, the impressive friendliness of Rojas’ personality shone through. You don’t realize the rarity of this until you hear it; I get the sense that most podcasters, eager to quickly scrape together whatever audience they can, affect sour pusses and hope to gather listeners under the banner of common (if exaggerated) prejudices. The strain of this charade, I would guess, has become a leading cause of the disease known as podfade. But Rojas comes across as a genuinely friendly, open fellow, just the sort of person you hope for when you know you’ll miss some to most of the meaning of each sentence spoken. Should I go to a word like “avuncular” here? Or perhaps the closest Spanish equivalent I can find, the awfully literal “de tío”?
What’s more, Rojas’ choices of topics seem equally reflective of his personality. Some episodes verge on the academic: popular music in Latin America between 1960 and 1965 [MP3] [MP3], using the always-tricky subjunctive [MP3], the word quedar [MP3]. Others connect to to his heritage: the reign of Peru’s controversial president Alberto Fujimori [MP3], the distinctive street sounds of his homeland [MP3], the origin of the pisco sour [MP3]. And then we have the episodes that, by the standards of language-learning programs, rank as almost startlingly personal: heart trouble in the family [MP3], his ride on a Grayhound bus [MP3], what Supertramp meant to him during his adolescence in military-governed Peru [MP3]. One of Rojas’ most endearing mannerisms surfaces whenever he mentions his American wife, Joan, or as he almost invariably says, “Mi esposa — Joan.” I don’t know how well it comes across in text, but he tends to say it with that odd pause and emphasis, like he’s afraid of forgetting her name. Joan, a student of Spanish, actually turns up on the podcast now and then. As she tells it, learning the language no era tan fácil como pensaba [MP3].
But by now, you surely sense that the resemblances between La Casa Rojas and garden-variety “some guy talking about stuff” podcasts, even those in Spanish, stop at the superficial. The complexities of Rojas’ topics, the considerations inherent in compressing them into five- to thirty-minute episodes, and the necessity of hitting certain linguistic points along the way force him into what sounds like no small amount of scripting and editing. (Supertramp cannot simply be described, after all; Supertramp must be heard — in fair-use-sized clips, of course.) Even so, the most valuable things I learn about the mechanics of Spanish while listening tend to come neither directly from the subject of the day nor the parts of grammar explicitly described. The importance of music in the life of Luis Rojas, for instance, has not been lost on me, nor has his tendency to describe speaking and listening to languages in musical terms. When one day he happened to mention his experience of Spanish-speaking students learning by replicating sounds and English-speaking students learning by internalizing written words, some important undergirding element of my foreign-language education — obviously, one too important to describe with much clarity — locked in.
As with any language-learning podcast, I recommend listening to each episode of La Casa Rojas definitely not once, and not just twice, but at least thrice. Given its 71-strong archive, that practice gives you over 35 hours of Spanish-language listening to do. Confusingly, Rojas hasn’t posted a new episode since March, but hope against podfade springs eternal. But even if we already possess the complete Rojas canon, it still provides a comfortable, well-positioned step in this particular podcast-based linguistic journey. If you lack any Spanish whatsoever, you might consider beginning with something like Coffee Break Spanish, moving up to its successor Show Time Spanish, putting in those 35 hours with La Casa Rojas, and then steeling yourself for the sufficiently vast realm of podcasts made for native Spanish speakers. Watch out; those guys talk a lot faster than Luis Rojas. Sometimes they’re barely avuncular at all. Nada de tío. Completamente nada.
Format: talk with travelers, and talk while traveling
Episode duration: ~28m
Frequency: not a going concern, but 85 episodes exist
Cultural England seems to have always loved a traveler. Perhaps this affinity lingers from the days of Empire, or maybe an island people instinctively understand wanderlust. Just behold the gallery of luminaries that is Wikipedia’s English travel writers page. If its seemingly broad definition of “travel writer” bothers you, any designation that encompasses the likes of Geoff Dyer, Graham Greene, Aldous Huxley, Pico Iyer, Michael Palin, and Evelyn Waugh can’t go far wrong. None of them seem freighted with the same burdens which Sisyphize many of the unfortunates we regard as travel writers in America, haphazardly collecting a third of the information they need in half the time they need so as to make the word count for an “If You Go...” box. Something tells me Colin Thubron never put up with that.
A traveler like Thubron, of course, deals with challenges all his own, and you can hear about them on BBC Radio 4’s Excess Baggage [RSS] [iTunes]. He shows up to discuss his journey up a Tibetan mountain so sacred that the truly faithful can never ascend; they just sort of go around and around the base. [MP3] Such a story could almost have come ripped from the diary of any of the Empire’s finest, but Excess Baggage as a whole attempts to cover a width of the traveling spectrum between these forcefully soul-searching Thubronic adventures to, say, the lure of moonlight [MP3], or knitting in Iceland [MP3].
That’s the traveling spectrum, mind you, as opposed to the tourism spectrum. And yes, rarely has a jerkier-sounding sentence appeared onscreen, but this gets into a genuinely substantial philosophical, or at least terminological, question. What counts as tourism, and what counts as travel? Does there come a point when the farrago of simulacra that is tourism ends and the genuinely experiential travel begins, or do the two occupy entirely separate psychological spaces? I feel as if every trip I’ve heard the hosts and guests of Excess Baggage discuss counts as proper travel: writing thriller novels about the Philippines after visiting the country [MP3], digging through Europe to expose your own grandfather’s Nazi past [MP3], running tours of North Korea [MP3]. Even a two-part [MP3] [MP3] guided exploration through Istanbul struck me as safely out of the utilitarian, two-weeks-of-time-off touristic zone — even as I listened to it, in a somewhat utilitiarian fasion, as preparation for a possible couple of weeks there myself.
So perhaps the difference between travel and tourism actually comes to nothing, and the BBC accents on a show like this simply cut straight to the supplicating colonial at my core? But given the extent to which we tend to view standard tourism — scrape together accrued vacation days, flip through a phrase book on the flght, eat a crêpe, take pictures of your partially focused self standing before similarly focused monuments, maybe ride a boat — the smoke must lead to some kind of fire. I think back to an old David Sedaris piece remembering a childhood neighbor recently returned from a midcentury middle-class European tour: “‘It changes people!’ our neighbor had said. Following a visit to Saint-Tropez, she had marked her garden with a series of tissue-sized international flags. A once discreet and modest woman, she now paraded about her yard wearing nothing but clogs and a flame-stitched bikini.”
But does tourism change people? I’ve begun to suspect that change is exactly what tourism doesn’t effect — rarely a change more substantive, in any case, than tissue flags and flame-stitched bikinis. We might thus define travel as acts of self-displacement that do, by whatever means, change people. In this we have at least one sound reason to call Excess Baggage a travel program, though I should make it clear that it isn’t a currently running program. Though it boasts an easily accessible archive of 85 episodes, the show ended its run in April of this year. It did so with a special broadcast on “the point and pleasure of travel” [MP3], which addresses all these issues and more. So you might consider listening to that one first, not last.
Format: two white comedians and a DJ interview black guys, a pornstar, and Jose Canseco
Episode duration: 45m-1h35m
Frequency: 2-5 per month
Moshe Kasher, a comedian I’ve seen here and there in Los Angeles, wrote a memoir and became one of the very, very few nonfiction authors to appear for an interview on KCRW’s Bookworm. This alone got me interested in his other projects, a group which includes a podcast called The Champs [RSS] [iTunes]. He hosts it with fellow comedian Neal Brennan, known as the co-creator of Chapelle’s Show, and someone named DJ Douggpound, who seldom verbally interjects but fires off many a sound clip — “drops,” as the radio industry calls them, or called them long ago when the technology was a novelty — using his iPad. So you have these three guys, and then they’re doing an interview show, questioning a different guest each week and everything. While none of these qualities sounded particularly innovative in and of itself, they all combined to give me reason to suspect something... alive in this podcast. Something spirited.
Downloading episodes, I found interviews with quite a few creators, celebrities, and other public figures I don’t normally hear dropping by podcasts: Hollywood Shuffle director (and Meteor Man himself) Robert Townsend [MP3], noted Eddie Murphy sibling Charlie Murphy [MP3], genre-defeating electronic musician Flying Lotus [MP3 1] [MP3 2]. David Alan Grier [MP3], whose every appearance on Adam Carolla’s show I download, and The Roots’ Questlove [MP3], whom I still remember enjoying on Aisha Tyler’s Girl on Guy, also grabbed my attention. All guys with brains worth picking, and Kasher, Brennan, and Douggpound do a sharp and energetic job of it, but for a while I just couldn’t see the unifying concept.
Then — after the second or third time one of the hosts pointed it out — I realized that all of those guests are black gentlemen. The meeting of white hosts and black guests seems to have provided a founding concept for the podcast, though not one stringently adhered to. The guys try, though; when retired adult film star Sasha Grey, as white a lady as I’ve seen in the past decade, takes a turn in the guest chair, she takes a turn in a guest chair. Flying Lotus occupies the other one, providing the recommended episodic allowance of blackness (and composing a track on the fly). Though white, Kasher and Brennan often allude to their ties with certain elements of black culture, or others allude for them. I don’t know how seriously to take these claims, though Kasher’s mean-streets-of-Oakland childhood has become a prominent enough aspect of his public persona that Douggpound gives him a regular ribbing about it. They do summon what sounds like a respectable depth of knowledge when the moment comes, and it often does, to discuss “black issues.” Still, a comedy-doing, podcast-recording white man who declares any kind of position relative to the black race walks into a more daunting minefield than I could ever bring myself to.
This gets into a question of nontrivial importance for any interviewing podcaster who, like me, endures regular, bitter communiqués about how few women and people of color we bring on: to what extent can you invite guests for what they are, rather than simply what they do, before grossing yourself out? Having grown up in the nineties, bent under pressure to never think about race or sex, I now find myself at the business end of e-mails demanding I explain why I’ve failed to consider race and sex. Yet nothing could make me feel like more of a White Male Supremacist than looking for guests with the thought, “Lessee, I just had a woman, so now I need a black.” I would imagine the Champs boys put no small amount of thought into stuff like this, though you wouldn’t necessarily have expected comedians to do so before now. Kasher, especially, strikes me an odd new breed, a libertine who we’d probably also have called “politically correct” (or at least a “male feminist”) back in those good old nineties. He seems to do well with it, though. I’ll let you know how absolute unreconstructedness works out for me.
None of these cultural burdens weigh on the format-breaking episode featuring a certain former Major League Baseball player by the name of Jose Canseco [MP3]. In a startlingly candid conversation not just about steroid use — it’s also about the abundant, almost aggressive sexual opportunities available to the Oakland As of the mid-eighties — Canseco proves considerably less nuts than either his public persona or his Twitter persona, aside from an absolute conviction that he’ll live to age 130. Few racial topics surface; it’s just Brennan, Kasher, Canseco, and Douggpound’s array of sounds — his divisive, divisive sounds. “The stupid radio DJ noises are too much,” says one iTunes review. “The sound effects made it impossible to listen,” says another. “Extremely obnoxious noises constantly,” says another still. Yes, Douggpound’s drops often come off as distracting, bizarrely un-apposite, or simply confusing. But when I laugh out loud at something spoken on The Champs, more often than not, Douggpound spoke it. Figure that out.
Format: thematic comedy gab, broken up with prepared segments
Episode duration: 1h-1h30m
Frequency: 1-2 per month
“Why do you want to do a podcast? You ain’t gonna do no podcast. You just a johnny-come-lately. You spent too much time on The Simpsons and you lost it, and now you’re trying to get it back, and everybody thinks it’s pathetic. You ain’t no Marc Maron.” Those words come in the voice of Little Richard, as performed by Dana Gould, to convey to us what the discouraging disapproving-dad voice inside his head sounds like. (His theory says that such a voice gets much easier to ignore when it sounds like Little Richard.) This happens on the very podcast that discourages, The Dana Gould Hour [RSS] [iTunes]. Luckily for Gould, and for us, Little Richard can only take that Marc Maron comparison so far. It pleases me to report that Gould has opted not to crank out yet another comedian-interviews-comedians podcast, but to put on more of a... production.
Its episodes, with come out once or twice a month, offer segments, scripted stories, recurring characters, and historical sound clips. I would draw a comparison to Paul F. Tompkins’ Paul F. Tompkast, but I haven’t heard that show yet. The Dana Gould Hour makes the unusual structural choice of interweaving these bits and pieces with group conversations like you’d hear on more standard comedy-gab shows. Each time out, Gould surrounds himself with colleagues — Eddie Pepitone usually shows up, to my increasing delight — and they all riff on a theme. These themes have included the apocalypse [MP3], carnies and theme parks [MP3], and Woody Allen’s wife, Soon-Yi Previn [MP3]. That last one usually gets me onboard, whatever the situation.
Gould, Pepitone, and company digress from these themes, as comedy podcasters do, but unlike most comedy podcasters they tend to return to them with regularity, usually after one of the aforementioned segments has just ended. These include real tales of marginal and/or ill-fated performers from Hollywood history, vintage Cold War-era “duck and cover when you see the flash” public service announcements, and dramatizations of a “manscaping” session with Larry King. Gould and his collaborators display a fascination only exceeded (but, I suppose, far exceeded) by the makers of Kevin Pollak’s Chat Show. Among their other preoccupations I identify the Kennedys — perhaps you’ve heard of them — and Murry Wilson, the controlling father of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson. I meant to say that, though I appreciate this show’s take on the Murry Wilson persona, the Peter Bagge-drawn Rock ’n Roll Dad Flash cartoons remain, for me, its ultimate expression — but Gould, so I’d never realized before now, co-developed them!
I’ve known for years that the name “Dana Gould” referred to a comedian without quite knowing his sensibility. (I do occasionally stare at the cover of his album Funhouse and feel it visually represents something about the nineties long since lost, just like Steven Wright’s I Have a Pony does for the eighties.) Me and most of my generation have no doubt inadvertently come into contact with his work many, many times through the Simpsons episodes he worked on. He wrote that one where Homer, Lenny, and Carl form that security company, SpringShield, and also that other one where Selma goes to China to adopt a baby, something Gould mentions having done three times himself. If that Little Richard voice is anything to go by, he fears having squandered valuable time on the Simpsons job, but it hasn’t left him bereft of subjects for discussion. His poor, strictly Catholic childhood in Massachusetts, for instance, still seems to give him material.
Come to think of it, The Dana Gould Hour, though based, like most podcasts, in Los Angeles, delivers an unusually amount of humor directly related to the northeastern United States. Hence, I suppose, that Kennedy thing, and hence the regular segment “Political Talk with Two Guys from Boston,” which I laugh at without understanding quite why. Gould and another fellow play the title characters, Johnny Condon and Robbie Sullivan of Bevel Aqua Heating and Air Conditioning Repair, who briefly touch on a political issue of the day before descending, blithely but inexorably, into volleys of idle, irrelevant complaints and bewildering rhetorical questions. I realized I’ve already lived in Los Angeles too long when I caught myself thinking, without irony, “Psh, from Boston — of course they’re stuck in jobs where they have to work.” Still, these segments take advantage of the genuinely bleak streak — the bleakness of bleak unspoken premises, rather than just bleak punchlines — of Gould and his crew. But wait until you hear them do Goofy as an existentialist Charles Bukowski.
Format: interviews with Brooklyn-based experts about their expertise and how it relates to Brooklyn
Episode duration: ~30m
Frequency: 1-4 per month
When one of my peers — i.e., anyone in that vast age group, “about thirty” — tells me they live in New York, I just assume they live in Brooklyn. Thirty years ago, I suppose they would have lived in one of the more run-down parts of Manhattan, David Byrne territory. But something tells me that no “more run-down parts of Manhattan” remain. I’ve talked to the occasional youngish person who lives in Queens, but they always make it sound as remote as Guam. I’ve never encountered anyone from the Bronx or Staten Island. Then again, I live in Los Angeles, a haven for the rootless, and I suspect Brooklyn provides the same solace. You see a lot of traffic back and forth; for every Brooklynite aspiring to Angelenohood, an Angeleno aspires to Brooklynism.
“Ah, Brooklyn,” I remember Buddy Bradley, protagonist of Peter Bagge’s comic series Hate, saying upon setting foot there. “The worst place in the world.” That issue formed, in large part, my early impression of that part of New York: crowded, inconvenient, dangerous, dirty. I still haven’t visited, though I understand that, somewhere in the past fifteen years, Brooklyn made the transition from Crooklyn to something of a Portland East. Over this same span of time, though, my appreciation for the crowded, inconvenient, dangerous, and dirty has only grown, so I don’t quite know what to do. Correcting my years of built-up inaccurate third-hand impressions by listening to Ask Brooklyn [iTunes] seemed like the beginning of a solution.
The first episode of Ask Brooklyn I listened to was about a doula [MP3]. Loyal Jordan, Jesse, Go! listeners such as myself already know all about doulas, but I still found myself asking, “Wait, so we’re talking about doulas now?” A doula is a woman who provides advice and assistance to expecting mothers, and are not, so they will emphasize to you, midwives. This particular doula speaks sentences emphatically, like pronouncements, and somehow also hesitatingly, like questions, an odd tone you might remember from high school English class. Host Kate Rath, speaking to this doula over the phone, asks all about the life of a doula and what a woman engaging the services of a doula might reasonably expect. While I personally will never put this information to use, I feel somehow pleased to have heard it.
Premised on the idea of questioning Brooklyn-based experts about what they do and how they do it in the borough they do it in, the show has brought on other guests like a “wellness coach” [MP3], a therapist with recommendations for “breaking unhealthy cycles” [MP3], and the co-founder of one of those “sex-positive” shops [MP3]. Having started to wonder if Brooklyn had become a colony of Denver, I then had the same kind of epiphany I have when I suddenly realize I’ve spent the entire evening in a gay bar: this show is for women. It doesn’t get all overt about it, but then again, neither do the better class of gay bars.
But recent Ask Brooklyns have given a nod to the traditionally male practices of beer-brewing and liquor-distilling: part one with a bar’s beer director [MP3], part two with him [MP3], and one with the co-founter of New York’s first distillery since prohibition [MP3]. (So perhaps Portland really is Brooklyn’s west-coast equivalent.) The seemingly gender-neutral episodes, such as the first one about oddities in Brooklyn history like secret plane crashes and vast low-quality marijuana farms [MP3], have even more to offer. Though this sort of thing has fallen into the hands of 36-year-old ladies in synthetically advanced pants where I come from, I took a great deal way from Rath’s conversation with a teacher at one of Brooklyn’s meditation centers [MP3]. It had something to do with how they describe our constant and ill-serving impulsive search for all-consuming distractions to dull the dread and anxiety buzzing in our brain. Now more ever, we’d do well to keep as conscious of that as we can — be we of the male or female persuasion.
Format: conversations (and occasional songs) between Andy Dick and his friends and colleagues
Episode duration: 1h-1h30m
I know who Andy Dick is, and yet I don’t know who Andy Dick is. He entered my awareness as a guest on Loveline, the nightly radio program that occupied one of the larger, more edifying chunks of my time between the ages of thirteen and twenty. He had a specific reason for being famous back then, which I believe had something to do with a role on the ABC sitcom NewsRadio. I remain more or less ignorant of that show, despite its retroactive receipt of a great deal of comedy-nerd credibility, at least by the standard of ABC sitcoms. I know just as much about Less Than Perfect, the other sitcom, this time about an office, which carried his mainstream recognition into the 2000s. My curiosity has long had a place for his band, the Bitches of the Century, but mostly because of its name. I can’t get enough of that name.
Somehow, this thin experience has provided reason enough for me to download Dick’s every guest appearance on today’s interview-ish comedy podcasts and comedy-ish interview podcasts: Marc Maron’s, say, or Adam Carolla’s. As far back as I can remember, and in whichever sonic medium I can remember, a conversation with Andy Dick has always meant a conversation about drugs and alcohol, either the benefits thereof, the indignities thereof, or the vagaries of quitting them. Given his once apparently constant struggles with substance abuse and tendency toward bizarre public behavior, Dick became something of a dead man walking in the eyes of the media. Yet, like a high-personality Zelig wandering through a very specific and strikingly grim circle of show business, he displayed a hardy survival instinct while his significantly less doomed-seeming associates — actors Phil Hartman and David Strickland come to mind — met their ends.
Though Dick now finds himself in a time of sobriety, you’ll hear about experiences like these on his podcast, The SHeD Show [RSS] [iTunes]. Having demonstrated such willingness and ability as a guest, he’s become one of those celebrities whose podcast you may never have heard, but whose not having a podcast would shock you. I think of Dick’s show as falling under the heading of “people I know” podcasts, which are what you get when celebrities decide they’ve accrued enough interesting and/or funny acquaintances to record an hour or two with one every so often. But it takes no more than a glance at recent episodes to reveal that he knows different people than most celebrities. In fact, I found my way to his show when I noticed that he’d interviewed Michael Silverblatt, host of KCRW’s Bookworm [MP3] — literally, a person I know. And in that unflaggingly enthusiastic conversation, he admits to not even really reading books.
Other names on Dick’s guest list also surprised me: actor of unclear repute Eric Roberts [MP3], former teen-pop idol Debbie Gibson [MP3], his own son Lucas [MP3]. He gets these people in front of a microphone and talks to them for at least an hour at a stretch, often breaking into impromptu song. He often sounds surrounded, though not always obviously so, by technical assistants, band members, or perhaps functionless hangers-out. (A logical setting, for those who have always imagine him at the center of a dissolute circle, egged on.) Though Dick refers to the podcast as “The Shit Show,” Apple’s evidently stringent language policy forces him to call it The SHed Show on iTunes. The clean name comes from the fact that he lives in a shed, though he takes great pains to explain that, Tuff Shed erected in his ex-wife’s yard though it may be, he has it fixed up like something out of Dwell magazine. But he doesn’t really live there, so he often adds; he sleeps there, but lives, variously, outside, in Los Angeles, on stages, on television, in the world of creativity, in The Industry.
I’d be hard pressed to explain exactly what I find compelling about Dick’s personality, but the evidence that I do appears clearly and presently in my willingness to listen to him talk. (I didn’t come for the insight into the inner life of Eric Roberts, I can assure you.) He does, however, embody several fascinating liminalities at once: not really a comedian, but not strictly an actor; not a household name, but somehow famous enough to be one; not a showbiz casualty, but hardly unscathed; not quite gay, but certainly not straight. Despite enduring the classically troubled life of a modern celebrity, his speech, manner, and appearance retain an almost unsettling energy and heightened crispness, burnt bridges be damned. He says much of his pure drive to create and share music, film, and television — his albums, movie Danny Roane: First Time Director, the pilot he’s written with his son — and it strikes me as far more genuine than the drives of others who feel the need to say much of them. In Andy Dick, we have a creature faintly not of this Earth; in his podcast, we have a means of listening to the alien atmosphere that he carries with him, and how it affects those unpredictable few who dare breathe it.
Format: Portland-related gab sessions and interviews
Episode duration: 30-38m
As soon as my feet touch Portland soil, in flood the good vibes. Every time I emerge from a car, plane, or MAX train into the fresh, cool, only slightly moist Portland air, I echo the words of Brigham Young reaching Salt Lake City: “This is the place.” These feelings only intensify when I’ve sat myself down in the nearest McMenamin’s with something locally brewed in hand. Yet I live not in Portland but Los Angeles, a city whose neighborhoods Portlanders either denounce as Portland’s moral and aesthetic enemies or deride as mere brittle simulacra of Portland. In search of convenient shots of Essence of Portland when I can’t fit in an actual trip north, I discovered a new, highly suitable-sounding podcast called The Portland Adventure Hour [RSS] [iTunes].
At first listen, the show sounds like a typical three-man gab session where you can’t tell which voice belongs to whom and don’t bother because it will peter out in eighteen months anyway. But, being Portland residents, these three men make occasional reference to the things they see and do in their fair city, which immediately ups the interest level. (Usually, this sort of production emanates from spare rooms fifteen or twenty miles outside my own fair city, not that that stops the hosts from griping about “living in Los Angeles.”) The format quickly takes on an unusual hybridity: some episodes go with the gab, while others present one-on-one interviews with Portland-resident creators and businessmen, like a comedian [MP3], a wildlife photographer [MP3], a ski-builder [MP3], and the proprietor of something called a bouldering gym [MP3].
Unsurprisingly, The Portland Adventure Hour features conversations about not just bouldering but semi-unconventional methods of kayaking, skateboarding at age thirty, reading artisanal comic books, playing vintage arcade games, and using similarly vintage video game hardware to generate entire DJ sets. The ability to act fruitfully on these impulses, so the hosts claim, is what Portland is for. I would argue that Powell’s Books is what Portland is for, but I take their meaning. Give me a day to browse those bookshelves, scale an indoor climbing wall, and pump a few quarters into Galaga, downing signature Stumptown roasts and ales all the while, and you have given me a day of Earthly Paradise. Yet, as in the early, feverishly productive years of a socialist nation, one senses faintly that, for all the evident success of this Utopian experiment, life has narrowed in a way that bodes vaguely ill.
For all its evident affection for the city, Portlandia has forced us all to stare hard at our Portland-related delusions. “The dream of the nineties is alive in Portland,” sang that show’s cast; the line refers equally to Generation X’s eclectic idealism as to its bitter complacency. Portland, in both the most positive and most negative senses of this word, enables: in the dream of the nineties, you escape the meaningless pressure of a normal career and find near-automatic support for even your most obscurantist efforts, but you do it in insular, uncomfortably monocultural (I once heard a Portland-based writer refer to his town as “Lord of the Flies with urban whites”) settings in thrall to troublesome ideologies of their own. We’ve heard this story before, as a myth which Richard Lloyd Parry summarizes best: “It is like one of those fairytale undersea realms where the simple fisherman follows his water nymph, only to realize after a few years of bliss that he can never return to the air.”
You can hear The Portland Adventure Hour realize it during a discussion of the meth-heads of Chinatown [MP3]: this complicated, uneasy Portland may not trigger that special endorphin release, but it holds much more interest in the long run. Just beneath the Portland of Portlandia lays the the Portland of Gus van Sant’s Paranoid Park. Both van Sant and Chuck Palahniuk seem able to reside in this Portland and remain internationally relevant creators, a trick few others seem able to pull off. Living in any of Portland’s realities, while fun, seems to get a lot of people branded in the wider culture, often with good cause, as not particularly serious about their craft. Will this show wind up as yet one more of Portland’s half-attempted, prematurely contented projects with a withered inclination (or indeed capacity) to reach beyond the walls of its hometown? Something in these guys’ lively speech, their active curiosity, and their ability to keep episodes under forty minutes makes me believe they can realize their idea's higher ambitions.
Damn, are ever there a lot of novels to read. I get this mixed rush of excitement, gratitude, incredulity, and hopelessness whenever I plug into an outlet of contemporary literary culture. In one hour, I’ll hear of dozens of authors and hundreds of books I might want but will never have the lifespan to read. How did this Jenga tower rise? When will it fall? Imagine what a comparable situation in the auto industry: respectable, productive new car companies appear every week; comfortable, well-built new models enter the market every day; lots teem with more vehicles than the entire driving population could reasonably buy and use, let alone fit onto the roads at once; time-tested old cars, some of the finest ever produced, remain abundant and far cheaper than their curiously pricey modern counterparts. Yet automotive design and engineering schools continue pumping out waves of expectant graduates each year, and everyone else seems less and less eager to drive.
From Other People [iTunes] [RSS], a literary version of Marc Maron’s WTF, I get vibrations of this same psychodrama. Host Brad Listi, a novelist-interviewer/novelist interviewer to Maron’s comedian-interviewer/comedian interviewer, sits down with the very people who write all these worthy recent novels to compare notes about growing up, pulling a writing career together, and physically doing the work, in sessions spiced with various opinions and anxieties. After having heard a sizable chunk of the archive, I can assure you that these episodes all have much of interest to offer: rich stories, sudden laughs, ponder-worthy observations, memorable strategies for living. The show’s conversations deliver just what I confidently imagine their participants’ actual books do. But where to start listening?
Selecting Other People interviews to download presents the same seemingly insoluble problems and obscure strains of guilt as selecting novels to read. Browsing Listi’s 77-strong backlog, I muttered to myself the thinnest of justifications: “Jerry Stahl? [MP3] Seemed interestingly ragged when I saw him on that one panel. Ben Marcus? [MP3] I remember some sort war of words about experimental writing between him and Jonathan Franzen where it looked like he was defending my reading interests, but then I only ever read Franzen’s side. Elna Baker? [MP3] That Mormon I heard on The Sound of Young America, and Mormon stuff weirds me out in a way I kind of enjoy. Rex Pickett? [MP3] Seems like we all know strangely little about that guy, considering he wrote Sideways. Vanessa Veselka? [MP3] Someone had me write about her novel once. Heidi Julavits? [MP3] Is that the same as Vendela Vida?” (And of course I grabbed all the ones with people I’ve interviewed myself — Reality Hunger manifesto assembler David Shields [MP3], literary blogger Maud Newton [MP3] — as every interviewer denies doing.)
For the most part, I threw up my hands and chose which Other Peoples to listen to the way I choose which books to read or, frankly, the way I choose pretty much everything: socially. In a world whose sheer number of options renders all of them effectively unevaluatable, picking whatever you happen to know people involved with or want to become like the people involved with at least lifts a burden. Sure, this guarantees that the simple meritocracy for which we clamored as sixteen-year-olds will never come, but we should’ve abandoned that idea long ago. Listi and his guests do seem aware, on some level, of this condition. They also directly acknowledge the bizarre structure of the literary fiction market now and again, though usually in passing. In one of his WTF-style pre-interview monologues, a shaken Listi describes the scene at the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference as “Darwinian.” I’ve gone to those; I know what he means. The chat there, while all kinds of stimulating, tends to float on a bitter current of spite. Let it seep to the surface, and it destroys you.
Listi, to his credit, lets little of this spite seep into his interviews. I come away from Other People remembering mostly what has the least direct relevance to the half-masochistic practice, performed with grim resignation and without apparent incentive, of writing novels: the roach-tainted cheese toast of Newton’s childhood; the questionable warning the college-bound Baker received from her mother about NYU’s roving gangs of lesbians; Veselka’s having emerged from the womb of Nick News W5’s Linda Ellerbee; Marcus’ dreams of college waterskiing. “Introduced” to many of these writers by Listi’s program, I now feel like getting to know them better, and if that means getting their personalities mediated through some fictional narrative, so be it. Maybe it just works this way now: you “meet” someone on a show like Other People, and you can, if you like, get further “acquainted” by reading their books. I would bang out a line here about how the work ought to stand for itself, but I think we’re all feeling a little tired these days.
Format: talk about all aspects of cycling and cycling culture
Episode duration: typically ~30m, with occasional longer specials
London’s Resonance FM broadcasts not what we would think of as straightforward talk programming, and not what we would think of as straightforward music programming, but something called “radio art.” This broad label turns out to cover a badly underutilized patch of radio’s philosophical spectrum, one safely distant from both bland jukeboxing and tiresome politicking. Eschew traditional news, sports, hits, and complaints, and you open up the creative space for shows a thinking listener might actually enjoy. This I realized when I Podthought about the podcast of every Resonance FM broadcast available in that form. I’d previously written up The Wire magazine’s Adventures in Modern Music, the most straightforward music show I’ve heard on Resonance (and The Wire has R. Stevie Moore on its cover this month). Now I’ve cycled back around, as it were, to listen hard to a program no other station has produced, or possibly could produce: The Bike Show [RSS] [iTunes].
When first I heard The Bike Show, host/producer Jack Thurston impressed me not only with his professionalism and stealthy production skill — qualities not immediately associated, alas, with freeform radio — but a dedication that had him not only chatting in the studio but recording out in the field, on long trips, and even while riding. (These signature “rolling interviews” have their own page on the show’s site.) But back then I lived in Santa Barbara, where cycling meant only an idyllic way to commute. Now that I’ve dropped myself into the vast complexity of Los Angeles with my old brown Nishiki as primary means of transport, cycling has taken a rather more essential place. An encounter with David Byrne’s Bicycle Diaries made me consciously grasp a fact my lifestyle had already incorporated: no more efficient, absorbing, and intellectually or aesthetically connected form of urban transportation exists. I had much to learn; I had to catch up on The Bike Show immediately.
You might find yourself in a similar position, but, especially if you live in the United States, you might not turn to this show’s guidance out of two fears: one, that Thurston gears it toward other Londoners, and two, that he gears it toward other, er, gearheads. Resonance’s location does mean that The Bike Show and its guests tend to discuss cycling in Engand and continental Europe. But I don’t mind that, since cycling across the pond seems locked into less of a garrison mentality than it does here; cultural changes are indeed underway, but America’s legacy of marginal, abrasive, spandex-coated car-loathing eccentrics dies hard. London, by comparison, would seem to boast a robust population of well-rounded, normally dressed, non-aggrieved riders, yet Thurston and his coterie bring up concern after concern about their city’s lack of sufficient infrastructure and basic regard for the two-wheeled. Denmark and the Netherlands, where toddlers and octogenarians alike ride helmetless and fearless for their every errand, come up again and again as the consummately bike-friendly countries against which all others must be judged. The term “Copenhagenize” sees much use.
Los Angeles, it will shock you to learn, has taken few pains to Copenhagenize. Happily pedal though I may over these 500 square miles — especially when we’ve got a CycLAvia going on — it only takes hearing a conversation between Thurston and the British and European bike enthusiasts, bike builders, bike racers, bike collectors, and bike writers he brings into the studio or connects to by Skype to suspect I might lack something in the way of accommodation. But thanks to Thurston’s enthusiasm, the briskness of his operation, and the variety of perspectives he brings tgether, this doesn’t actually discourage me. Quite the opposite, in fact; the next time I feel burnt out after a long, loud, lonely ride down one of this city’s bike routes in name only — Venice Boulevard, say — I’ll click on an episode or two of The Bike Show for an instantly revitalizing shot of cycling culture. I can’t listen at home without wanting to get right back on the streets, inhospitable as they may sometimes feel.
And this brings me to address that second fear: cycling culture, on this program, means more than ranking derailleurs. Thurston occasionally invites guests who sound like they’d gladly rank derailleurs for the duration of the broadcast and beyond, and perhaps he himself longs to do the same, but The Bike Show sounds dedicated to not drilling too far into any one subtopic. This is not a show about the mechanics of cycling, the business of cycling, the science of cycling, the sport of cycling, the history of cycling, or (heaven help us) the politics of cycling: it’s a show about all of them and everything else besides. As driving a car steadily becomes a stodgier, more expensive lifestyle choice, the humble bicycle has its chance to recapture the imagination of a large, able, willing, developed-world population outside of Copenhagen. But to do so, it needs as few monomaniacs as it can get. Every skillful essayist treats their chosen subject as a nexus of all subjects; in each episode of The Bike Show, we have from Jack Thurston and his collaborators a skillful essay indeed.