Sunday, May 27, 2012

Trip to the abandoned Sideling Hill Tunnel


Last year, Stefan and I explored a ghost town, Centralia, PA. Centralia was a bit disappointing because all of the buildings had been demolished and it wasn’t really as isolated as we thought. But this year's trip was a different story. 

I never get tired of walking down a stretch of abandoned road. It evokes a sort of primal emotion in that I think about the end of things, that all of our mighty human civilization could one day be just as abandoned as this one stretch and it shows you how fragile our civilization is that without maintenance our roads would begin to becomes patches of weeds and overgrown trees.     


This year, Stefan and I visited an abandoned stretch of the Pennsylvania Turnpike and braved the complete darkness of the 1.3 mile long abandoned Sideling Hill tunnel.

I just read the short story “Nightfall” by Isaac Asimov this week. In that story a civilization developed on a planet that orbits 6 suns. On this planet at least one of the suns is always shining. Therefore these people have almost no concept of darkness. They have a level of technology comparable to ours and yet they never even invented the light bulb and only recently developed the candle. Their scientists have theorized that there is soon to be a total eclipse and their world will be filled with darkness for 15 minutes. One of their religions tells a story that when darkness fills the skies you can see stars in the sky, but no one knows if the story is true. On the planet, there was a once a ride at an amusement park. In the ride people where taken into a long tunnel for several minutes and put into complete darkness. This ride had to be shut down as 1 in 10 people were driven irrevocably mad by exposure to the darkness. When astronomers studied the upcoming eclipse they  theorized that the eclipse occurs every 2000 years. And it seems that their civilization has risen and fallen 6 or 7 times and each time it mysteriously collapses after 2000 years. Will the eclipse cause 10% percent of the population to be driven insane? Will their civilization collapse?

Well, you’ll have to read the story to answer those questions, but I will tell you whether 1.3 miles of darkness drove me insane. No, it didn’t, but I had my penlight and my good friend to get me through it. The two of us sang songs into the darkness and played chicken, each one refusing turn on their flashlights on or admit that we couldn’t see in the complete darkness.


And when we’d gotten through the tunnel there was nothing to do but go back, but we didn’t go back the way we came, we explored the building and found our way to the air vents on the top of the tunnel. When the tunnel was used there were two sets of huge turbines on either side of the tunnel that pushed the hot air that collected in the vents out of the tunnel.

This shot shows you how big those turbines are.

The darkness of the main tunnel was bad enough, walking through more than a mile of this completely dark “attic” was an almost unbearable idea at first. After every few feet there were holes cut into the concrete for the air to flow upwards, so these had to be avoided. And, I’m afraid of heights so from the second I first stepped onto the “attic” and saw one of the holes, I started shaking a little bit. Not to mention the fact that neither of us was 100% sure they were safe. I mean we’d just walked the tunnel and hadn’t seen any signs of structure problems, but the tunnel was completely dark, we hadn’t exactly seen every inch of it. And as we walked we started to realize that the shaft was getting smaller. Suddenly we both had to stoop while walking. Being a short guy I’m not used to having to stoop and so I kept hitting my head on the ceiling. Every step of the way we’d wonder if the next step was safe, but we shined our lights and looked for signs that someone had been up there and there were occasionally empty beer cans or cigarette butts, which proved to us we were the only people crazy enough to make this journey. When we got halfway through the tunnel we saw a brick wall up ahead. This was obviously to separate the area controlled by one set of turbines from the other. For a couple minutes as we walked towards the brick wall we didn’t know if we’d be forced to turn around and walk all the way back the way we’d come. Fortunately there was a small metal door in the center of the brick wall, which had been left open.


By the halfway point, I was no longer scared, I knew with every step we were closer to the end and we had figured out the pattern of the holes in the floor. We started singing again and making jokes. The vent was a tremendous echo chamber so no matter what you sang or said it reverberated all around the tunnel. I had to wonder whether anyone was walking through the main tunnel while we were going through the air vent and I wonder what they made of suddenly hearing “The Lion Sleeps Tonight,” vocals and background vocals, coming from an unknown location in the tunnel. Did they guess where we were? Did they think we were nuts?

Eventually we made it through the tunnel. We had faced the heart of darkness or the darkest depth of the darkest darkness and survived unscathed.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Musical Musings: Mark Lanegan "Down in the Dark" featuring Kurt Cobain

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You gotta love the Internet for its ability to humble you. No matter how much you think you know, it reminds you that you can’t ever know everything.

There was a record store at the far end of my hometown that became kind of a mecca to me when I was in Junior High and High School. They sold used CDs and records, but they also sold bootleg CDs, which even at a young age I was sort of cautious about.

My favorite band at the time was Nirvana and I had to have every song they ever did, so I bought at least four of their bootlegs. The one that I liked the most is called “Nirvana the Ultimate Collection vol. 1.” I thought it was the coolest thing ever. It had all these songs that weren’t on their albums, like “Even in His Youth,” and “Do You Love Me.”

While I was in High School suddenly “Marigold” was “discovered” my the local radio stations and they played it about 20 times a day for a month or two, I had it on my CD so it was old news to me.

But the song that this article is about is called “Down in the Dark,” but I didn’t know that’s what it was called until I started thinking about this article and did some research. You see on the back of my CD case it lists the track as “Unknown Demo” so the song had always been a mystery.

So I was going to write an article about the mystery Nirvana demo track, but as soon as I looked into this bootleg, I found a site devoted to Nirvana bootlegs and they taught me a lot about my prized bootleg CD. Here is their summation of the album, “Out of 23 tracks 15 are officially released. Not very promising for a commercial bootleg. This disc isn't even suitable for beginning collectors, filled with easy to get and not very exciting material.”  

I knew that some of the tracks were the B-Sides from Nirvana’s singles, but in my opinion buying one CD that has all the B-sides was easier than trying to find all the singles. And other than the singles there are 9 other CDs I would have had to track down in order to get all the songs that were conveniently found on my one CD. So I still disagree with the website’s assessment, but it did knock me down a few pegs and make me think.

But, the part that was most interesting was that the site revealed that, “20 and 21 are from Mark Lanegan's solo album "The Winding Sheet"” And that track 21 “‘Down In The Dark’ labeled as ‘Unknown Demo.’”

This was tremendous news! I mean I’ve been wondering about this for about 15 years.

It’s disappointing to learn that these two tracks aren’t Nirvana tracks. I thought “Down in the Dark” was interesting because it was such a departure from Kurt Cobain’s typical sound. The reason being, it wasn’t his sound! He was just guesting on Lanegan’s album.

Mark Lanegan was the lead singer of Screaming Trees and was the lead singer of Queens of the Stone Age for one album. And he’s done a number of solo albums and I’m just starting to explore his music. But, I’ve listened to his song “Down in the Dark” for 15 years and didn’t know he was responsible for it until now.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Musical Musings: Harry Chapin- "30,000 Pounds of Bananas"


When I was a kid car trips from Queen’s New York to Grandma’s house in Rhode Island during the summer meant listening to albums on the tape deck in my dad’s car. And the album I remember best was Harry Chapin Anthology. We must have listened to that album on every trip we took, or at least that’s the way I remember it. I probably know every line by heart and I remember singing along to the songs with my mom.

Not everyone in the family was a fan. I remember my brother didn’t think much of “Cat’s in the Cradle,” he wanted my dad to skip it because “it didn’t make any sense.”  After all the narrator says that his “boy was just like him,” but at the end of the song the son won’t make time for his father because he is taking care of his sick kid so he isn’t falling into the same pattern as the father. Indeed the son may have been able to break the pattern by being more present for his own child’s life. And my brother felt like that deserved mentioning. I love the song and feel like I know what Harry meant, that the song is about the relationship between a father and his son and “the boy was just like him” because the son was unwilling to make time for the relationship when he was an adult just like the father was unwilling when the son was younger.

When I became a teenager and started listening to my own music on my walkman during family car trips, Harry was left behind and I didn’t really think much about his music until I was in college. During that time I sometimes had fun downloading songs with peer-to-peer programs like Kazaa and trying to make complete albums that way. One of the albums I assembled was Harry Chapin Anthology and the CD has been a staple on my car trips as an adult ever since. And, I sing all the songs to my 4-month-old Henry. And Harry Chapin himself ended up as a character in a time travel story I wrote last year and hope to get published one of these days. My wife and I went to a tribute concert Harry’s brother Steve gave along with two of Harry’s other band mates Howard Fields and Big John Wallace. My wife and I were the youngest people there. I’ll never forget a woman turning to us when we walked in the theater and saying, “What are you doing here you’re both too young to like this music.” Yes, I’ve even made my wife a fan too. We put the CD in sing along. One of her favorites is “30,000 Pounds of Bananas” and for obvious reasons we always play the song when we’re anywhere near Scranton, Pennsylvania.     

And it’s 30,000 Pounds of Bananas that I want to talk about in this post. You see one of Harry’s great talents, which I have realized since I started to listen to his other albums, was that at his concerts he liked to switch his songs up a little bit. Whether it was changing the opening lines of “I Want to Learn a Love Song” or having the road crew and the cello player each sing a verse of “Circle.” The point is his concerts were a different experience than the albums; there was an element of not knowing what to expect.

And the live version of 30,000 Pounds of Banana’s was no exception. On the Greatest Stories Live album there is a 12 minute version of the normally 6 minute song. What is the extra 6 minutes all about? Well, Harry starts to tell the audience that when he wrote the song he didn’t know how to end it so he’d come up with an ending and he’d play it for his band and they’d say, “Harry, it Sucks!” and he’d try a different style and they’d say the same thing. And he plays all the different alternate endings and yes, they all suck. But it’s a lot of fun to hear them and yes I know it’s all just for fun, I don’t believe for a second any of them were ever real endings. But, this extended track is very famous in its own right. It was so popular that at Harry’s concerts they started selling tee-shirts that said “Harry, it Sucks!”

Unfortunately Harry’s story has a tragic ending he was killed in a car crash on the Long Island Expressway in 1981. He was taken long before his time. Rest in peace Harry!

Thursday, May 17, 2012

The Little Things


Henry is already pretty much on a set schedule he goes to sleep every night around 8 pm. Then I wake him up around midnight or 1 am and change his diaper and then give him a bottle and put him back to bed. And then he stays asleep till around 6 am.

He’s still only four months old, put there are so many little things he does that make having him around special. For instance, I’m too heavy a sleeper to have heard it first hand, but Carol claims that when he wakes up in the morning he doesn’t cry, he just talks to himself for about a half an hour and then he cries. When I say talk, I mean he makes noises that are somewhat close to speech. Everyone calls it babbling, but Henry really seems to think we should understand him. He holds conversations. He’ll wait for you to stop talking before he starts and he’ll be quiet if you start to answer him. Sometimes I think I hear similar sequences of sounds. I think maybe he’s created his own language. My kid’s a genius!

He smiles whenever he sees me. So then I touch his foot or his nose and I sing him a line of two of whatever song is in my head and he seems so happy. I feel like we already have a bond. It’s a strange thing. I used to sort of dread having to take care of him for most of the day on Saturday when Carol goes to work. But now it’s no problem because I feel like I know what I’m doing. 

Sometimes he starts screaming at his daycare and I work just down the hall so I’ll go down to the room and they’ll hand him to me and instantly he stops crying. I think he knows if he screams long enough he’ll get to see his dad.


He really is smart. Sometimes we can give him his bottle and he’ll hold it and feed himself for a couple of minutes. And we let him play with this flexible plastic spoon and he’s seems to be starting to understand how to use it. And he’s is so darn close to rolling over on his own, but so far he’s only done it if I give him a little helpful push. He’s also playing on his stomach for longer and longer stretches. When I think about how much his head weighs in relation to the rest of him and how much effort it must be for him to hold his head up, I’m constantly amazed at the kids determination, but I guess we’ve all gone through it. 

One thing we started doing is putting him in a baby carrier. We strap him to my chest like a WMD (weapon of mass defecation). Well, we started going for walks with him in there and he loves it. He doesn’t scream at all, (where as if he’s on the floor or in his bouncer in the evening he usually starts to fuss) he just looks all around and makes little noises when he sees something new like bikes or trucks.

We started him in his Johnny Jumper and man does he love it. He plays in the thing for like an hour at a time, which in baby time is like an entire day for us adults. He never seems to tire of playing with all the knobs and doo-dads. I can’t help but think that he believes he is manning the controls of a rocket ship or something. Here is a video of the first time Carol put him in the thing. It’s a good thing she got it on film, because I have never seen him so happy before or since.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Musical Musings: Poe- "Hey Pretty"

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New Year's 2001-2002, I was down in Baltimore and went to a huge bonfire celebration out in the middle of nowhere. You can guess what kind of a night I had; I wake up on Jan.1 after spending a couple of hours curled up under a blanket on the floor of my friends Jaeger and Anthony’s apartment.

I always wake up kind of slowly, getting a feel for what’s going on before really reaching full consciousness and that day was no exception. As fate would have it, what woke me up was Jaeger listening to Poe’s second album “Haunted.” I remember hearing the sound of a phone dialing and ringing and Poe singing, “I thought you should know that he died today he closed his eyes and he left us at 12:03. He wanted you to know he isn’t holding a grudge and if you are you should let it go.” And then the somewhat eerie-gothic-pop-rock-techno music began in all its glory. I’d never heard anything like it, I stayed there on the floor completely memorized and I think I listen to the whole album. At least that’s how I want to remember it.     

To say that Haunted is a great album is kind of an understatement. It’s a work of art and easily in my top ten albums of all time.

Haunted is a concept album; it’s a tribute to Poe’s father who passed away in 1993. Poe found recording of lectures he’d given and used them as a sort of found art in her songs. She also may have used recordings from her mother’s answering machine. I’ve never been sure if those parts are found art too, I tend to think they’re just playful fabrications.

But Poe’s relationship with her parents isn’t the only thread in the album. The other main theme is the dovetailing of her music with her brother, Mark Z. Danielewski’s book “House of Leaves.” The novel is about, among other things, a mysterious closet in an old house, a closet that doesn’t exist in our reality, a closet, which begins to grow! The book isn’t required reading to enjoy the album but a familiarity with both definitely enhances the experience.

So, what’s the point of this post, other than reminiscing about old times and giving a little valentine to one of my favorite albums?

One of the tracks on this album is “Hey Pretty.” You can find it here:

Now, when I got back to college (New Paltz in upstate New York). I bought “Haunted” and “House of Leaves” as quickly as I could and started playing the heck out of the album and reading the novel. One day I was listening to the album and someone said, “Does this one have the hidden track on it?”

Sometime after I bought the album another edition of the album came out. This one had an additional hidden track at the end of it. A remix of “Hey Pretty” that features Mark Danielewski reading a passage from “House of Leaves.” Well, needless to say I had to go out and buy the album a second time in order to have the additional song. Here is the remix. (I couldn't embed this video for whatever reason)

Which version do you like better? To me they are practically different songs and I like each of them for different reasons. I think as a song the original is a better song. It doesn’t really need the spoken word. But the passage fits so well on the remix that it really is a great piece of art. I definitely remember reading the novel before I heard this remix and the passage was memorable even before I heard it set to music.    

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Musical Musings: The Beatles- "I'm Down"

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This is the first post in a new segment Musical Musings. I'm not sure how it will evolve, but the idea that started it was to explore alternate versions of songs. When you know a song well and you hear a different version for the first time, it always makes you really take notice. I want to look at demos, at alternate takes in the studio as well as outtakes, at live versions, and at remixes. Sometimes it's gonna ask which version you think is better, so we'll have a bit of a battle and other times it will be more about just getting neat information out there and listening to great music.

The first song I want to look at is "I'm Down" by the Beatles. This is a song I probably heard on the oldies station when I was growing up, but for whatever reason it didn’t stick.

So, years later, I'm in High School, it's the late 90s, and I'm really getting into the Beatles and I'm playing all their albums and listening to all their songs. And I got this book for Christmas from my dad, "A Hard Day's Write" by Steve Turner. This is a really cool book, it has the story behind all the Beatles songs. So you can find out what inspired everything from "Paperback Writer" to "Lovely Rita." But, one of the entries that really stuck with me was a caption that appeared under a picture on the entry for Helter Skelter, "Although Paul was regarded as the ballad writer of the Beatles, he was responsible for three of the group's dirtiest rock numbers- 'I'm Down,' 'Why Don't We Do It In the Road' and 'Helter Skelter.'"

 I remember reading that and thinking, "Whoa! there's another Beatles song that rocks as hard as 'Helter Skelter' and 'Why Don't We Do It In the Road?'” And I raided my dad's collection of Beatles CDs even more than I already had, but he didn't have it. So it wasn't until I got my hands on the Past Masters that I actually heard the track. And here it is: (Isn’t life so much easier with Youtube?)

Now what do you think? Does that rock as hard as “Helter Skelter”? (Would that track drive Charles Mason insane?) I know it’s practically sacrilegious to criticize the Beatles, it's not a bad song, really the only part that kills it is John and George doing an impression of girl back-up singers. Hard rock doesn’t have back-up singers.

But fortunately there is redemption for “I’m Down” via the Beatles Anthology 2, because on it there is a version of “I’m Down” without the back up singing. When I first heard this I thought, “this is the version of the song I’ve always wanted.” I like this version much better, but you can decide for yourself:

So which version do you prefer? And why?

Saturday, May 5, 2012

Short Story of the Week (May 2012)

Starting this month I'm going to do a monthly post about the short science fiction stories (short stories, novelettes, novellas) we read and discuss each week at the Classic Science Fiction Message Board. The best part is that the stories are always available for FREE online so anyone can participate. This post will be updated all month as we read each story and share our thoughts. This month Carl V. is choosing the stories:


Carl V. Anderson was born and raised in the original Star Wars generation.  He cut his science fiction teeth on novelizations of the films and spin-off stories by the likes of Brian Daley and Alan Dean Foster while taking on the role of Boba Fett in neighborhood games of Star Wars.  His first foray outside of the imagination of George Lucas happened when he grabbed a book from his uncle's bookshelf, turned over the back cover and read the words, "Interstellar Outlaw"--a lifelong love of Slippery Jim DiGriz, the Stainless Steel Rat, was born. Through the ensuing decades he has partaken of science fiction hard and not-so-hard, classic and modern. Though he enjoys books of both eras, there is an essence of nostalgia in reading the classics of the genre that is heady and addicting in a way no other reading can match. Carl V. considers the internet a very special gift, allowing readers of like fiction to bond in a way that defies the idea that reading is a solitary activity.  You can find Carl waxing poetic over a whole host of book and non-book material on his site, Stainless Steel Dropping.  Carl would love to be invited over to play Star Wars with you in the back yard.  His only request is, can he please be Han Solo, just once?!?!

Carl's bio really reminds me of a quote he shared at his blog recently. "I have never listened to anyone who criticized my taste in space travel, sideshows or gorillas. when this occurs, I pack up my dinosaurs and leave the room" - Ray Bradbury. And I know the secret to Carl's success, he's got a really cool man-cave in his basement:


Week # 1-  Scanners Live in Vain by Cordwainer Smith (1950)

Martel is a Scanner, a position honored by all for it is the Scanners who make the complexity of space travel possible.  In order to become a Scanner men must voluntarily cut themselves off from all sensory input, with the exception of sight, to man specialized suits that allow them to function under the extreme conditions necessary for assisting with interstellar travel. Martel is a good Scanner and he is proud of the work he does, as is his ever-patient wife Luci.  When rumors arrive that a man may have discovered a secret to space travel that would free the Scanners, an assassination is planned. Martel must decide between the life of pride that he has known as a scanner and the chance to perhaps recapture what it is like to be truly human.

This is an amazing story. The ideas that Smith explores with this story are just incredible. He wastes no time in drawing the reader into the immediacy of Martel's predicament, allowing the details of this strange future to unfold as Martel struggles with the life he used to have and the life he has now.  "Scanners Live in Vain" is worthy of the praise it has received, it is the kind of story that proves just how powerful short stories in this genre can be.

Week # 2-  It's a Good Life by Jerome Bixby (1953)

 "It's a Good Life" is about a 3 year old boy with incredible, "god-like" powers and the effects of his presence in the lives of the people who live near him. You may be familiar with the story, as I am, from the 1961 episode of the same name from the television series, The Twilight Zone. 

Week # 3- A Martian Odyssey by Stanley G. Weinbaum.

According to Wiki the story was "originally published in the July 1934 issue of Wonder Stories. It was Weinbaum's first published story, and remains his best known."

Continuing on with Wiki's info: "Isaac Asimov states that Weinbaum's "easy style and his realistic description of extraterrestrial scenes and life-forms were better than anything yet seen, and the science fiction reading public went mad over him." The story "had the effect on the field of an exploding grenade. With this single story, Weinbaum was instantly recognized as the world's best living science fiction writer, and at once almost every writer in the field tried to imitate him."

High praise from Mr. Asimov! With that kind of introduction how could I not choose this story for us to examine.

Week # 4- Nightfall by Isaac Asimov

 "Nightfall" first appeared in Astounding Science Fiction in September of 1941. Asimov stated that he wrote the story after Campbell asked him to write a story about this quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson:

"If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown!"

I've been interested in reading the short story (and the expanded novel by Asimov and Silverberg) since reading about the story in one of Michael Whelan's art books last year. I like the idea of darkness coming to a planet that is bathed in light and what preparations for that might look like, and how people would be affected. I'm also a fan of Asimov and would enjoy reading this one for the first time and discussing it with this group. I hope you all enjoy it too.