Sunday, August 28, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Baltimora

Baltimora...so you thoughtLike nearly all diabolical dancepop singles from Europe, "Tarzan Boy" is a tune that gets stuck in your head on infinite repeat as soon as you hear it, whether you like it or not. This singularly catchy/annoying quality created a worldwide sensation that not only charted in multiple territories, but also helped promote a couple of ultra-lame Hollywood movies, hawk mouthwash and even sell a gay-aimed energy drink. Not too shabby for a one-hit flash-in-the-pan, eh?

While most people watching the very cheaply-done "Tarzan Boy" video clip might have figured that Northern Ireland-born Jimmy McShane was in fact Baltimora, it turns out that McShane was actually a hired "face" lip-syncing the words: the actual singing (not to mention songwriting and production) was instead handled by noted Italo-disco figure Maurizio Bassi.

Sounding like some kind of weird fusion of A-Ha and The Tokens, Baltimora swept over Europe during the summer of 1985 before finding release stateside via EMI Records. The time it took for EMI to finally break "Tarzan Boy" in America resulted in the song earning a six month stay on the Hot 100, ultimately peaking at #13 in the early spring of 1986.

While "Tarzan Boy" might be an unapologetically vapid pop confection, it pales in silliness and sLiving In The Backgroundheer goofiness next to the similarly-styled (not to mention equally suggestive) "Woody Boogie," which was chosen as the follow-up single in Europe. While "Woody Boogie" somehow managed to make some waves overseas, the American market was instead serviced with Living In The Background's rather unmemorable title cut instead, which only managed a paltry 4 weeks on the Hot 100, peaking at #87 in April of 1986. A follow-up album, Key Key Karimba, was released a year later and managed to sell pretty well in Italy and nowhere else. Thus endeth Baltimora...until Hollywood intervened a few years later.

Considering how quintessentially 1980s the song sounded by that point, it's incredible that "Tarzan Boy" made a second run up the Hot 100 in the spring of 1993, climbing to back up to #51 thanks to its appearance in the movie Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III. No such resurgence occured when the song appeared again in a movie a few years later: this time in the best-forgotten 1997 Chris Farley caper Beverly Hills Ninja.

Having successfully gone Hollywood, Baltimora took to Madison Avenue next as the seemingly deathless "Tarzan Boy" managed to make millions of impressions nationwide one more time thanks it its use in a popular Listerine commercial, which featured the song playing (sans lead vocals) while a sprightly, computer-animated bottle of green minty mouthwash swung around on vines in some colorful digital jungle. Awesome.

In a much lesser known product campaign, "Tarzan Boy" also became the "official theme song" for an energy drink called Gay Fuel. To the best of my understanding, Gay Fuel is roughly analogous to Red Bull, only with far more aphrodisiac properties (it is supposedly fortified with natural herbal stimulants and immune system boosters) and the concoction is colored pink instead of yellow. No, I am not making this shit up.

Hardly any information is available anywhere (at least in un-mauled English) as to what Maurizio Bassi has been up to since his studio creation briefly took over the world. It is known that Bassi has since worked with megastar Eros Ramazzotti and the Italian disco groups Silver Pozzoli and Passengers (no relation to the U2/Brian Eno project of the same name), but aside from these projects, his life and fortunes remain a mystery.

Sadly, this is not the case for Baltimora's "face": Jimmy McShane died of AIDS on March 28, 1995. He was 37 years old.

Sunday, August 21, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Die Warzau

Die Warzau - we're not sure if these were the first white guys with dreadlocks, but we'll let them live anyway...Made up of guitarist/synthesist/singer Van Christie and drummer/vocalist Jim Marcus, the Chicago synthwave act Die Warzau was initially signed to Fiction Records (longtime home to The Cure and distributed stateside via Mercury Records in this instance) largely on their envelope-pushing live reputation as a performance art group and also since their sound seemed to mesh with the sensibilities of the underground industrial scene starting to stir around in the clubs of the Windy City.

Following 1988's Disco Rigido, Die Warzau next surfaced on Atlantic Records in 1991 with Big Electric Metal Bass Face, a more streamlined release that found the duo moving away from the classic "industrial" sound towards a more dance-friendly and melodic sound, equal parts dance, funk, and pop with a "rock" lean to the sound and occasional interesting blasts of atmospherics in the mix. One could almost say that Die Warzau were set up to serve as the "bridge" between the industrial underground and the pop/rock mainstream. Alas, their timing wasn't quite right, and their album managed to find an underground audience over time but never broke beyond that level.

This intoxicating, sample-heavy formula was then perfected on the band's third album, Engine, which found a release on Chicago's world-famous Wax Trax! label in 1995, long after ex-label darlings Trent Reznor and Al Jourgensen had managed to bring industrial music into the mainstream at the major label level. For Die Warzau, Engine may not have been a platinum payday, but it definitely felt like they had come home: following their twin major label efforts, which were pretty much at total odds with the rest of the mainstream pack around them, Engine was a natural fit for a label like Wax Trax!, whose catalog almost certainly inspired a fair amount of the duo's earlier works.

EngineIt probably didn't hurt the finished product that the duo had also accrued a lot of production experience in the intervening years since Big Electric Metal Bass Face. For a while, the name Die Warzau became more synonymous with "remixing" and "special thanks to" credits than for their original music as they worked with such grassroots-level electro-rock luminaries as Sister Machine Gun, Machines Of Loving Grace, Pigface, Revenge, Gravity Kills and KMFDM (not to mention some even higher profile remix work for Bj├Ârk).

Engine also contained what many consider to be Die Warzau's shining achievement: the hazy techno-rocker "All Good Girls," which became a remarkable success for the band at college radio and dance clubs. A great snapshot of the duo's rich palette of influences, "All Good Girls" was also prominently featured (along with a bevy of other Wax Trax! heavyweights) in the Jeff Goldblum horror film Hideaway, which didn't wind up being that much of a career break as the film failed to take flight with audiences despite rather eerie depictions of damnation and torment that set up the supernatural basis of the thriller.

Following nine years in the scrap pile of disbanded acts fed up with the record industry, Die Warzau suddenly reformed as a quartet (featuring new members Abel Garibaldi and Dan Evans) and issued a new album on a different Chicago label called Pulseblack Records in October of last year. Titled Convenience, the new album finds Die Warzau moving even farther away from their not-quite-industrial roots towards a sound more reminscent of Depeche Mode. There is also a revisitation of "All Good Girls" in the new album's closing track, "Shine," though no word as of yet as to whether it measures up to the original (Sadly, I don't have any mp3s available from this new album at the time of writing this article, though a song from this release is available for streaming at their MySpace page).

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Life Can Be So Nice

Hello, Record Den!
A rare full-weekend off (complete with rawkin' thunderstorm line that marched through here as I started to write this) affords me the opportunity to say "HI!!!!" to everyone out there in the internets and also update this thing on recent life and stuff like that. A welcoming shout-out is also holla'd out to Mike Oberstar, whom I haven't seen in a looong time and who stopped in at the store over the last week for a nice chat.

First things first, the accursed car is running fine and dandy, thank you very much. That being said, there is one new issue to be reported as it now appears that the rear brakes may be in need of imminent maintenance (though not to the same degree as the front set). We'll just see about that. Really.

Thanks to said car, I'm still in "save money and pay off debts for a couple of months" mode, and I'll be tackling some sundry projects here and there to keep myself occupied for a bit. First and foremost of these new projects is the final relocation of all these goddamn boxes that have been sitting in this office since the day we moved in this condo (which is about a week and change short of a year ago now).

There is also the pressing need I feel to back up about 90 gigs worth of data from this computer as well, just in case of some catastrophic system failure that would leave me pretty well fucked if it happened, say, tomorrow. Backing up on that scale is, of course, a monstrously tedious task which is not made any easier by the never-ending stream of new stuff I keep grabbing off usenet (and lately courtesy of that amazing technological creation called Bit Torrent, though I've been having some system stability issues with that lately) not to mention my weekly sweeps of a few dozen mp3 blogs.

Another project that I'd like to tackle as I get some spare time is picking up some additional HTML skillz. Y'all might have noticed the explosion of pictures on this blog over the last couple of months, and I'm starting to get the hang of some other tricks of the trade here and there which, ultimately, points towards me joining the rest of the late Twentieth Century and creating an actual website with links and pictures and Goat knows what else. As of right now, this is all that I've put together...but I'll let y'all know if and when that changes.

While we're on that tip, I wouldn't mind tarting up this blog a bit as well since I think I'm starting to tire a bit with this template and a distinct lack of handy accoutrements that I have not figured out how to add to this page yet (i.e., links to other blogs and friends and et cetera). I'd also be interested someday in setting up a Google homepage ... but this all much farther down the line.

Last Sunday was a pretty good day all around as we headed downtown and spent a few hours in the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame with an old 'net friend, the one and only Dave Lynch (no, not the damned movie director), who was in town visiting. We hadn't seen Dave since we met for lunch at Hopkins Airport (with a swing over to Tower City for the "food" part) a couple of years ago easy, and we haven't been in the Rock Hall since the summer of 2001.

The Rock N Roll Hall Of FameIt was a blast to hang out with Dave again (though I wish the weather had been slightly more agreeable on that day) and it was fun to see some new displays and presentations at the Hall (though I can't say I was overly thrilled to see that the featured attraction this year is devoted to freakin' Tommy of all things). I really need sometime to just get down there at opening time and spend the entire day in the place, checking out everything as thoroughlly as possible and not feeling like time is running low (for whatever reason, we always seem to wind up being in a rush for one reason or another when we are down there and I keep thinking we missed something somewhere).

In an amusing new development, despite being neutered almost as soon as we brought him home, it looks like little Moe has discovered the joys of dry-humping Ghidorah's back. Even better yet, his preferred place for engaging in this happens to be in the bay window in full view of anyone who happens to be walking, driving or biking by. Beautiful.

Otherwise, things are going pretty fairly here during the times we aren't hosting amateur performances of Behind The Green Curtain for the neighbors. My job continues to go well, with this month looking so far like it'll be a bit more helpful towards attaining our new best-year-ever figure than July or June (which were rather flat). Sarah has a new job at Case which she started this past week and involves lab mice in many aspects -- not limited to working with them, monitoring them, breeding them, and eventually performing surgery on them. Insert "eewww" face here.

Speaking of my job, my friend (and ex Record Den co-worker) Dave Makatura has started hosting a whole bunch of Record Den pictures of varying vintage on the Other Pages section of his long-running website for the enjoyment of those interested. Some of these date back as far as 1982, and a few of them had me blanching in horror at clothes I only distantly recall and a haircut that I must have blocked from my memory for a decade...

Alright, it's off for now to enjoy the rest of my Saturday in one form or another. I think I might busy myself with one of the projects I mentioned above...or perhaps we may hang out with friends, or there are a couple of video games that I've picked up over the last couple of YEARS that I still haven't found the time to play, maybe some catching up on DVDs or the rest of the books I have yet to read...

Gads. Where did all the free time go?

NP Our Daughter's Wedding Digital Cowboy

Sunday, August 14, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Eurythmics

Eurythmics with the world at their feet (and thus out of shot), 1983
The story goes that struggling musician David A. Stewart met Annie Lennox while she was waitressing in a London cafe in 1976 and was so immediately taken with her that the first words out of his mouth were "will you marry me?"

At the time, Lennox had already performed in various jazz and cabaret combos after dropping out of London's Royal Academy of Music, where she had been studying classical music. As a romance between the two quickly blossomed (despite Lennox refusing Stewart's marriage offer), Stewart decided to break up Longdancer, the folk act he had been involved with, and start up a new pop trio with his new girlfriend and fellow ex-Longdancer, guitarist Peet Coombes. While Lennox possessed a keening, evocative voice with a naturally soaring quality, she split her vocals in the new band with Coombes (the band's primary songwriter) and played some keyboards on the side. Calling themselves Catch, the trio issued a single in 1977 before beefing up their ranks by adding a bass player and drummer and then rechristened themselves as The Tourists.

The TouristsThe story of The Tourists isn't that dissimilar from that of many bands who taste success but can't quite make that jump to the next level of popularity for whatever reason. For The Tourists, success was earned over the course of their first albums and a fistful of singles chart incursions, most notably the twin top 10 songs: "So Good To Be Back Home Again" and a cover of the old Dusty Springfield chestnut "I Only Wanna Be With You" (a rather canny cover choice as the band tended to wear their overwhelmingly sixties pop/folk influence on their sleeves).

Following this breakthrough, however, things went downhill rather quickly when the third Tourists album (Luminous Basement ) failed to sell. Those ever-popular "creative tensions" surfaced between Stewart and Coombes, mainly over the direction of the band's music, which had taken a distinct turn away from the 60's pop aesthetic and towards a more modern, electronics-dusted sound. If the power struggle between Stewart and Coombes wasn't bad enough news, a myriad of external issues concerning everything from the band's management to record label woes to the tender mercies of the acid-blooded U.K. music press combined to bring about the end of the band in a matter of months. Perhaps worst of all, Lennox and Stewart's relationship fell apart at around this same time, though the ex-lovers (perhaps sensing they were onto something special) continued working together as a creative team after their romantic breakup.

Unsurprisingly, considering the direction flirted with on the last Tourists album, the new material recorded by Stewart and Lennox was far more experimental and far less "pop" in nature than that of their previous band. Most of the experimental nature of this work derived from Stewart's increasing fascination with synthesizers as the means to an end in lieu of guitars and "standard" pop instrumentation. RCA Records, who had picked up The Tourists just before their second album, was interested in the potential of the new duo (now called Eurythmics after a method of music instruction first demonstrated by Swiss educator Emile Jaques-Dalcroze in 1906), and kept them under contract, remaining their business home throughout the rest of their recording career, together and apart.

In The GardenThe first Eurythmics album, In The Garden, was released in the fall of 1981. Recorded by legendary producer Conny Plank (probably the pre-eminent experimental/"Krautrock" studio figure, best known for his work with pre-Autobahn Kraftwerk, Brian Eno, Ultravox, Devo, Neu!, and had also supervised the final Tourists sessions), In The Garden was stark, rather charmless debut that offered up an interesting mix of styles and influences in a more avant-garde sound than The Tourists, but with no real breakout potential in any of the tracks, save for the single "Never Gonna Cry Again," which had slinked as "high" as No. 63 in the charts over the summer.

With In The Garden a no-show in the album rankings, Eurythmics hit the road in an attempt to get some kind of momentum happening. While a few backing musicians had been utilized in the studio to create the album, Stewart and Lennox performed strictly as a duo on this trek, with an extensive use of backing tapes and synthesizers (which I believe was the first time this kind of performance set-up with a duo had ever been attempted as this was a full year before the existence of the next great electropop duo, Yaz).

More songwriting followed quickly thereafter, though all three singles the duo released in 1982 failed to break the Top 50 (two of them never made the charts at all). About the only good news with these records was that they were all recorded at Stewart's own home studio which he had built to help keep down production costs (as ponying up continually for professional studio time would only compound the duo's worsening financial stituation). Despite the promise and quality of the new material, this was not a happy time for Eurythmics: the stresses of trying to make a living (and failing at each attempt) while trying to keep RCA from dropping them in the process was taking a tangible physical and psychological toll on the duo, with both members laid low at various times out of sheer exhaustion and frustration.

A clip from the Sweet Dreams videoIn February of 1983, however, the hard work and emotional toil invested in the second Eurythmics album began to pay off quite handsomely: in fact, that album became the work that changed their lives and fortunes forever. While Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) was on the surface a more polished and colder-sounding album than it's predecessor, this time around there were a handful of songs present that resonated strongly with the record-buying public. Timing was certainly a mitigating factor as well, as the "experimental" sounds Stewart had been working with over the previous couple of years had now become the hot new sound in pop music. Almost overnight, Eurythmics had achieved a critical mass, and their new album exploded worldwide over that synthpop-dominated summer.

While it would be doing a disservice to the arrestingly unique sound of the album's title cut to simply state that MTV airplay is what powered the song to the top of the U.S. singles charts, the influence of the channel on the band's immediate success in America cannot be denied. The surreal, bovine-filled videoclip for "Sweet Dreams" was a huge MTV favorite over that summer, and Lennox cut a stunning figure on TV, lip-syncing the song's lyrics while dressed in a pinstripe suit and tie, her close-cropped hair dyed brilliant orange/red (Stewart was content to sit on the sidelines, emotionlessly tapping away at a computer keyboard or playing a cello in a field). The "Sweet Dreams" video also kick-started a year long Bowie-esque flirtation with gender-bending on Lennox's part, as the singer used wigs and makeup to look almost completely different (and in one case, almost passably male) in all of the band's early videos.

It's worth noting that the million-selling "Sweet Dreams" was also the first of only two synthpop singles to top the Billboard Hot 100 in 1983, the other being Michael Sembello's equally-robotronic fluke smash "Maniac" (which, funnily enough, was the song that succeeded Eurythmics at the summit). A follow-up single, "Love Is A Stranger" (one of the band's failed U.K. singles in late 1982), fell just shy of the U.S. Top 20 a couple of months later, a real shame since that song's sleek, dark, insistent pulse was just as unique-sounding on the radio as its predecessor.

While the duo's singles were winding down their chart runs, MTV aired Eurythmics: Live From Heaven, a concert shot at the London nightclub of the same name that showed the duo performing selections from Sweet Dreams (Are Made Of This) and In The Garden along with 3-piece backing band (and a troika of 80's-coiffed backing singers). A couple of promo videos appeared midway through the set in the form of "Love Is A Stranger" and a jaw-dropping, gospel-inflected rearrangement of "This City Never Sleeps" that knocks me off my feet to this day. I'd only had a beat-up VHS copy of this show to watch for years, and thus I was delighted recently to find out that this concert has been issued on DVD. Energetic, effortlessly cool and stuffed with songs that often sound superior to the studio versions, Live From Heaven cannot be recommended highly enough for anyone into the duo's early work. Fantastic stuff.

TouchIn the faster-paced release market that existed before the 1990s, the only way to follow a breakout year was to outdo yourself the following year, and Eurythmics proved themselves up to the task as the band's third album Touch appeared in early 1984. An instantaneous success, Touch gave the duo their first Top 10 placing in the Billboard album charts and sold over a million copies, buoyed by a trio of dizzyingly eclectic synthpop classics: the giddy, artifcial tropicalia of "Right By Your Side," the digitized torch song "Who's That Girl" and the breathtaking epic "Here Comes The Rain Again" (which remains one of the most beautiful singles in the electropop canon).

Since these were still the days when Billboard allowed what were essentially overpriced 12" singles to appear on their album charts, a Eurythmics dance EP (creatively titled Touchdance, wouldn't you know) surfaced in July of that year, containing vocal remixes and extended instrumentals of a couple of Touch album cuts, ostensibly for club play.

Even with their new album still riding the charts, Eurythmics kept to a punishing work ethic of touring, writing and recording with hardly any breaks -- trying to strike whilst the proverbial iron was still hot, perhaps. Even then, it came as a total surprise to fans when the announcement of a fourth Eurythmics album was made in the fall of 1984. A largely instrumental work that now sounds years ahead of its time, this new album was the intended soundtrack for Michael Radford's recreation of George Orwell's classic novel 1984 and instead became one of the great "lost albums" of that decade.

1984In an embarrasing turn of events, hardly any of the music on the album 1984 (For The Love Of Big Brother) made it into the finished film. Apparently, Eurythmics were asked by Virgin Records (the movie's financier) to craft the soundtrack without Radford's consent or knowledge, and the director was furious when informed of the move since he had already commissioned a film score by composer Dominic Muldowney. Pronouncing the 1984 soundtrack album "too contemporary" to be used in his film, Radford ended up rejecting roughly 90% of the work and stuck with Muldowney's more traditional score instead. Ouch.

Making matters worse was that RCA didn't consider the soundtrack album a "proper" Eurythmics release and therefore didn't bother to give the record anywhere near the level of promotion enjoyed by Touch or Sweet Dreams. While enough diehard Eurythmics fans became aware of 1984 to drive it briefly into the bottom reaches of the Top 100 of the U.S. albums chart over the winter, the album didn't hang around very long afterward and was virtually forgotten by the general public within months.

That's not to say that RCA didn't at least try: two singles from 1984 were issued to radio, and both ran straight into a brick wall. The first, an uptempo pop-funk number called "Sexcrime" had some serious problems gaining airplay at pop stations thanks to its title and the word "sex" being machine-gunned at the listener throughout the song's running time (oh, heavens!). Edited versions of the song (which merely chopped off the opening few seconds of the track) were serviced to radio and MTV to alleviate the strain on delicate ears, but it was to no avail.

JuliaThe haunting second single from 1984, "Julia," seemed to glide slowly by like an ocean liner and was quite possibly the doomiest sounding major label single released in 1985. It was a gorgeous track, comprised of little more than Lennox's vocoder-treated singing against a sparse, celestial bed of electronics, but it wasn't exactly the kind of thing pradio rogrammers could easily sandwich between Wham! and Madonna. Oh well, it was their loss.

Following this commercial misfire, Eurythmics came back firing on all cylinders in the late spring of 1985 with their fifth album, Be Yourself Tonight. Representing the popular peak of the band as far as sales and singles were concerned, Be Yourself Tonight was also a big surprise for many people as the sound of the duo had changed dramatically in the short downtime between releases.

Save for Lennox's instantly identifiable vocals, the production aspects of the single "Would I Lie To You?" were different enough to make you wonder if this was indeed the same band that had just released "Julia" six months before. Rather than the expected icy washes of synthesizers and programmed percussion, Stewart and Lennox were now leaning strongly towards classic R&B as guitars, bass, live drums, and even a horn section took a far more prominent role in the band's sound.

The synths weren't all gone, though: the album's radiant follow-up hit "There Must Be An Angel" and the seductive fourth single "It's Alright" were both imbued with a more familiar electronic pulse, but from this point forward, the synth-heavy vestiges of the band's work disappeared from the airwaves (and largely from their albums as well). By the time album number six (Revenge) appeared in the summer of 1986, the guitars had pretty much taken over for good, and the duo had become one with the rock-fixated mainstream.

Sunday, August 07, 2005

Sunday Synthpop Brunch: Delete Yourself!

ARISE! DESTROY! ATARI TEENAGE RIOT IS THE COOLES...oh wait, start over again...During a tumultuous 8 years of existence, German techno-thrash trio Atari Teenage Riot became one of those rare bands whose very name perfectly summed up their sound without any outside explanation.

Formed in 1992 by Alec Empire, a talented and prolific solo artist in his own right who has released a plethora of solo albums covering a wide array of electronic and rock textures (either released under his own name or ECP and Jaguar) and featuring backup vocalist Hanin Elias and rapper Carl Crack (whose drug-related suicide in 2001 effectively spelled the end of the band), Atari Teenage Riot aimed straight for the jugular with their groundbreaking fusion of hardcore punk attitude and feral speed-techno beats.

After having made a name for themselves in their homeland with all the subtlety of a bull in a china shop, Atari Teenage Riot managed to swindle themselves up a record label using a record company advance to do so. Utilizing the very aptly-named Digital Hardcore Records as a base of operations, Empire and Co. lured together a stable of similar-minded artists (EC8OR, Shizuo, Bomb 20, Speed Freak) in an attempt to politicize the youth of Germany into action to fight against the recent shift to the Right in European politics (and hey, what better way to get the kids sold on the idea radically Left-of-center ideals than lashing them with Euro-techno on steroids?).

Correctly figuring that the best way to cut through the background noise of everyday life was to make a godawful racket, Atari Teenage Riot's debut full-length release, 1996's Delete Yourself! was designed from the ground up as a sonic letterbomb that was supposed to scare the living hell out of anyone over the age of 30. By screaming at the tops of their lungs over lightning-fast breaks and power-chord-sounding synth patches (in effect, sounding like a KMFDM record played at 78 speed), Empire, Elias and Crack sought to proclaim that the German youth of 1996 were wising up to what was going on in the halls of power and weren't too happy about it.

In reality, however, listening to what was actually being shouted throughout such unintentionally hilarious Delete Yourself! tracks as "Kids Are United!," "Start The Riot," "Raverbashing," "Midijunkies" and "Cyberpunks Are Dead!" tended to undermine the intended effect of the record. Despite the amount of compressed righteous fury and coruscating sonics in their music, Atari Teenage Riot seemed just as interested in repeatedly and obnoxiously proclaiming their own bad-assed greatness than actually, you know, setting up an exchange of political ideas with the Powers That Be. Ahh, youth...

Thursday, August 04, 2005

The Final Conflict

What my car does to me
Sarah and I left to pick up my from Conrad's just before 9 A.M. this morning (Wednesday), stopping first at her bank so she could float me a loan, and then at my own bank so I could deposit the money.

Once the check was written and accepted and the keys back in my hands, it was immediately back to the E-check station for me in order to get this shit over with once and for all. Upon my arrival, I was pleased to see no one in line and was waved right into the garage. I was just about to step out of the car and head to the waiting area when one of the kid employees yells the name of the guy taking care of my paperwork while pointing straight at the front of my car, where wisps of smoke were emanating from beneath the hood. My stomach immediately dropped about 20 floors. Jesus Christ, NOW what?

Incredulous, I popped the hood. Sure enough, more smoke was looming up from exactly the same place as before, only this time in much smaller amounts. For a stunned second or two, I was ready to charge back over to Conrad's with a tire iron in hand until I realized that what I was seeing had to be leftover steering fluid that had sprayed around from last week and now freshly reheated on the pipes and engine casing. The E-check guy taking care of me (the same one who had been there Friday when this thing was really smoking) agreed. Phew. False alarm.

I went inside the waiting area (which looks and feels like you are walking into an air conditioned trailer standing in the middle of a warehouse) to await the test results, confident that this was about to end at long last. However, the slowly-dissipating bad karma of the last week wasn't quite through with me yet: a couple of moments later, I was told that the car cannot be tested because it was overheating.

I just about flew into pieces right on the spot, but managed to not raise my voice at the manager as I explained that the car may run a little hot for their tastes, perhaps, but it does not overheat. I didn't mention that the car had been idling in ninety degree early morning heat without their movable fan running on it for about ten minutes while we sorted the smoke situation and paperwork out ... that might have made me sound a bit snarky. Anyway, it's not a problem, really. Scout's honor. Can we just test the fucker, please?

Request denied.

I looked quickly down at the floor, about to splutter a "JESUS CHRIST, MAN," and took a breath. I then switched tactics and started in on my intended fall back gambit: the repair waiver. I laid out the story y'all read the other day (in abbreviated form) to no effect at all. See, while I did indeed spend an amazing amount of money that I do not have on car repairs, only about $100 of that money was actually for emissions-related repairs (nevermind that the entire reason the last thousand and a half dollars was spent so that these clowns would look at my car in the first fucking place), and therefore I was well short of the $300 threshold to try this stunt without an E-check.

"Look," I said, keeping my voice steady with great effort, "the exhaust system on that car is new. The cleaning job done on the engine last week was done in order to get me to pass this test, which I flunked by a few hundredths of a percentage point on the nitrogen count. I have had two places tell me in the last week that there is nothing wrong with the emissions system on this car at all. And now you are telling me that, in order to get all of this over with, I now have to go out and spend a couple hundred more dollars to have someone fix something that isn't broken in the first place?"

"Well ... yeah, that is one way of doing it."

Well, damn, what the hell can I say to that?

"Look, how about I just park it for a while and cool it down so we can do this again?"

"That's fine, but if it overhea-..."

I wasn't really listening to the rest as I walked away and drove the car to the side of the testing facility. It seemed futile to attempt a "cool down" in the rapidly-warming blast furnace of a day we were already having, but I was up against the wall now. I let about forty minutes tick on by before I started the car up again and drove back around the building where I was faced with four or five vehicles lined up in front of me. I took a place in line, waited for a few minutes, and quickly calculated that by the time I reached the garage I would likely be "overheating" again. This wasn't going to work.

I then drove home, seriously wondering how in the hell I was going to scrape up a couple hundred more dollars to buy myself out of this unending nightmare. Once I was at my desk, I stewed for a bit, cooling off in the AC, asked Moe if had any ideas (he did not, but instead flipped out for a while in Sarah's chair), and tried to dig up a receipt for the exhaust system repairs I had done back in the spring as a possible way to meet the repair waiver total.

Sarah called a few minutes later and suggested I take the car to a different E-check facility. This entailed heading out to the other side of Lake County: an idea I wasn't very hip to for a handful of reasons, but I told her I'd consider the suggestion. I then called the 1-800 number shown on the E-check brochure to speak with one of their Customer Service people about what was acceptable for a repair waiver claim. There was nothing but bad news on that front: all repair jobs submitted for a waiver had to be done within a 60 day period before the E-check test. God damn it.

I talked with the rep for a few minutes about this complete pinch that I was in, and while going over some options, the CS rep mentioned "release forms" while talking about testing a car that was prone to overheating. Hey, I was never offered that option! When I told the CS rep that this I never even told of this possibility by the facility manager, the CS rep suggested (as Sarah had), that I try a different location to have the car tested instead. OK, then, what did I have to lose?

Back onto the freeway I went, this time for a lengthy cruise to the other side of Painesville (i.e., the borderline between civilization and BumbleFuck). Once there, I parked at a convenience store near the E-check facility in a doomed attempt to cool the now rather-hot engine down a bit. By now it was positively blazing out, and after a few minutes of sitting around in the heat, I realized there wasn't going to be an awful lot I could do unless I felt like sitting there for another couple of hours. Since that was not an option, I started the engine again and noted that the TEMP gauge was holding steady at about 3/4 of the way up.

Well, this has to be Good Enough for now. Let's do it.

A couple of minutes later, I pulled into the Painesville Township E-check station which, while looking identical to the Willoughby location from the outside, was populated by a cast of people straight out of Hooterville. I asked for a release form when I handed over my paperwork and explained why. The manager was called over, and I explained my situation once again. He looked doubtful, saying basically "well, if the car is overheating, then we can't test it, and that is that."

I gave the manager my very best sales pitch. "Listen, this car is NOT OVERHEATING. I just drove out here from Willowick, so it looks kinda hot but I am telling you and signing this form saying that it's GOING TO BE FINE. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, PLEASE PLEASE TEST IT." (These weren't my exact words, but instead the thrust of my pitch).

"Alright, son ... but if that needle starts to crawl up, I have to stop the test."

Fine. I give up. "Do what you have to do, then."

I stepped out of the car and into the waiting area, watching anxiously as the workers moved it into place on those roller thingies and started their test program up.

That E-check was over FAST, really fast. Far more so than in Willoughby, where it seemed to drag on for a couple of minutes of 3000 RPM torture. This time, it was all over in less than a minute ... and what do you know? It passed!

An enormous weight just vanished from my shoulders in a dizzy rush. I could have kissed them all. Maybe even some tongue too.

So, I figure I'm only in debt up to my eyeballs until sometime around Halloween. That's no picnic, but I've been there and done that. However, I am also mobile, legal, and absolutely giddy with relief. The worst two weeks of this whole fucking year are now an archived memory, nothing more. Praise Dog.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Shafts Of Murky Light

Well, the black curtain has started to lift...just a bit.

The car is now finished. Will be getting it from Conrad's early tomorrow morning and then it's off to get it E-checked again and then (assuming even one goddamned thing goes right this week) it's off to finally get a new sticker and be legal and driving again. So, the nightmare is almost halfway over. The "paying back of loans" parts starts up in earnest next week and continues for as long as it takes to do and also keep my own bills and rent and etc. afloat. Wheee.

Anyway, I've been treasuring the laughs when I get them these past few days, and Doonesbury has been really stepping up to the plate lately in that regard. Here is a series of strips that ran last week that caused me much amusement...

1

2

3

4

5

6

Ok, off to bed. Here's hoping tomorrow goes without incident...

NP U2 Vertigo Tour Los Angeles (4.6.05)

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

The Downward Spiral

What my car does to me

"When a man stares into the abyss and sees nothing but darkness, this is the time that he finds his character. And it is his character that keeps him from falling into the abyss."

That's right, folks, I am peering intently into the abyss right now and it's quite a sight: a big yawning bleak chasm of absolute darkness that seems without end. Of course, there is an end down there somewhere, but it sure feels bottomless today...

A lot of the following sad, stupid, amazingly shit-luck story has been alluded to in a recent post, but as it turns out, that was only the tip of the iceberg, kids! Life, which was merely being a pain in the ass at the time I wrote that linked entry, took a razor-sharp hairpin turn for the "horrid" late last week, and finally reached the level of "blackly comic" earlier this afternoon. And it may not even be over yet -- as I write this, there is the small chance of things somehow getting even worse tomorrow, but I'm currently of the mind that the bottom has at last been touched...it's time to resurface, take some slow deep breaths, and recount just how in the Hell I got into my current predicament.

About two weeks ago, I noticed that my driver's side rear tire was pretty low on air. A refilling solved the problem temporarily, but less than a week later on a Friday night, it was back to low again. That Saturday, I dropped the car off at Conrad's (local Good Year place on Euclid Avenue), and I was informed that there was a nail in the tire, but repairing it seemed kinda silly as both that and the opposite tire were wearing down considerably. Thus, I authorized their replacement and threw in an oil change and lube since it had been a little longer than four months since the last one had been done and it seemed a good idea at the time. That was about $200 after all expenses.

A few days later, I believe it was Wednesday, it was time to get the car E-checked. Granted, I went into this a bit cocky since the exhaust system on this car was only replaced this past March (a surprise repair that caught me unawares monetarily and SHOULD have been a sign of things to come back then, but I always sucked at reading tea leaves), and it was to my amazement, that the car failed the test.

A slight bit annoyed, I headed back home to set up an appointment to get whatever problem I had taken care of as soon as possible. Upon pulling into my parking spot, I noticed some steam under the car hood, which surprised me, but didn't trouble me since this car has a long history of steaming slightly when hot. Figuring this was a side effect of E-check running up the RPM around 3000 or so (to, uh, simulate 25 mph driving conditions, I am told...though I wonder exactly what kind of cars sound like that at 25 mph), I paid the fumes no mind.

That night, I drove the car back to the place that installed the exhaust system in the first place to have them find what was causing my NO emissions to read higher than they should (said establishment being Giles Marathon on Route 306 near Lakeland Communit College in Kirtland). When parking my car in the lot next to the building, I noticed the steam again, only this time the car had only been running for a few minutes. Frowning, I popped the hood open and looked around. There was quite a bit of smoke, not steam, and it was certainly not cooking engine coolant. It smelled like oil, and seemed to be emanating from the center of the engine. It wasn't a frightening amount, perhaps some leftover spilled oil from the change, I thought. In any case, I mentioned this in a note I left for the mechanics the next day, wondering if that might be the source of my problems.

Thursday comes around, and Giles calls me to say that there is nothing outwardly wrong with the car. They noted (correctly) that i must have just failed the E-check, since everything was running properly. Just to make sure, they went ahead and did a lot of engine cleaning (fuel injectors, lines, etc.) in order to give the car the cleanest possible exhaust. They reccommended that I run the engine a bit hot to cook off any residual gunk and then it should pass with flying colors. I then asked about the steam/smoke, which they blew off, saying that there appeared to be a small leak of fluid all right, not sure if it was transmission or oil, but that it was of no consequence to the test. Relieved, I plunked down $100 and drove home, confident that all was well once again.

That feeling of confidence wore off really fast when I got off the freeway and pulled into a Wendy's for a bite to eat, however. The car was steaming again, and this time it was a pretty considerable amount, roughly that of what an overheating radiator looks like. The gauges all read fine, and after a few minutes of worrying me, the smoke just vanished and did not recur the entire drive home.

Bright and early Friday morning, with a bit of unease, I took the car onto the freeway and then up and down Lost Nation road, heating it up nice for it's second E-check. I pulled into an adjacent building and the car was steaming away again. Hoping it would do the same as the previous night, I let it idle and waited for the steam to disperse so it wouldn't prove a distraction to the servicekids at E-check. To my rising concern, the steam didn't stop. At all. With a sigh of resignation, I pulled over to the E-check facility and my fears are justified when the manager of the place refuses outright to test the car. A couple of the kids look under the hood and tell me that I have a pretty good sized oil leak going, and the rules clearly state that they will not test a car that is leaking or smoking anything at all.

E-check was in the right to do that, but I was infuriated nonetheless. I backed the car out of the building and then floored it down the driveway and laid down some additional rubber on Lost Nation Road in a fit of mounting anger. Now I am in a real pinch with the tags expiring in two days and only one shot left to get the car fixed and passed before then.

Steaming, I roared back to the condo, watched my car throw off some more smoke from under the hood and wheel wells, and told Sarah the situation. I then attempted to contact the mechanic who fixed my car at Giles Marathon. Ah, he was off that day and wouldn't be back until Saturday. No dice there. So, I immediately set up an appointment at Conrad's, told them what was wrong and that I had to get this car passable by early Saturday morning or I would be pretty well screwed (ha ha...I had no idea what that word meant at the time).

Off to work I went, wondering offhandedly what in the hell I did to bring all of this jumping through numerous hoops upon myself. A couple of hours later, Conrad's called and said that they could find no leak or smoke coming from the engine whatsover. They even did some kind of expensive degrease-and-dye test of the oil system and found no breaches or leaks anywhere.

What. The. Fuck.

Wondering if I had stumbled into some new episode of Candid Camera, I asked them how much it will be to pick the car up on Saturday morning and was told that the charge was just south of $90 for all services rendered. I hung up the phone, not at all reassured, and getting increasingly exasperated. I was now just around $400 spent on this car in the last seven days, and becoming increasingly certain as time passed that something was being missed.

After thinking about it a few minutes, I called Conrad's back and talked directly to the mechanic who worked on the car, verifying once again that there was no leak, no smoke, nada. Verified. Stymied, I then asked how long the car was running when it was being examined and was told roughly 20 minutes. Figuring it was worth a try for my peace of mind, I asked that he start the car again and just let it run.

30 minutes later, the mechanic called back and said they had found the problem. I was not leaking and burning oil at all, but rather power steering fluid, and quite a bit of it at that. In fact, the whole rack-and-pinion system was shot. When totaled out, these repairs would be about $840...over twice what I had just put into this thing. I balked immediately and decided to think about it overnight.

I spent a lot of time weighing my options that evening and into Saturday morning. It was a tough call almost any way I cut it. A brand new car is out of the question for me, and even making payments on a new used car wouldn't kill me, but the insurance premiums until I could pay it off certainly would.

My first inclination was to just fire this aging car out of a cannon and into Lake Erie, but after already flushing $400 down the toilet, that option stung, and it stung hard. This car, until now, had been a very good car for me. It was free (a gift from Sarah), so the maintenance and repairs I have put into it have been the price of the car...and considering that, it's still not a terrible deal except for the "all at once" part. The car is still in good shape, too -- I use it only almost exclusively for work transportation and little else. If i can get another 2 years or so out of it, great, and these repairs certainly bode well for that being the case. Also, thanks to a little caveat in the E-check program, I will probably not need to worry if the car passes an emissions test or not, since if you can show documentation that you have spent at least $200 having the car worked on in order to pass the E-check, then they would in effect say "good enough" and pass you for your labors.

In the end, the above made up my mind for me. While there was an option to wait until Sarah upgraded from her current car to a new one, that waiting period would be a few months and the price I would pay to get rid of the leftover payments was a couple hundred dollars more than I would spend fixing this car up once and for all. So, once I had figured out a way to make this work around my finances, I made the call Saturday afternoon and green-lighted the rack-and-pinion work. This was gonna hurt a bit, yes, but I figured it was the right choice to make.

Wellllllll, it wasn't...in fact, that call just went down as the most galactically stupid move I've made in this new century.

This afternoon while getting ready for work, Conrad's called. I figured it was them saying that the car was ready and all, but the mechanic on the other end of the phone had a tone in his speaking that chilled my blood the second I realized what it was: that voice had "Err, I don't know how to tell you this..." written all over it.

It turns out that the mechanics were pulling off or putting on my tires to get at the steering system and realized that my front braking system (not just my front brakes, but the whole fucking system) was hosed. Calipers, shoes, rotors, the works. I started to giggle in a completely humorless, doomed fashion.

So, uh, how much for this work now? Oh, another $500...

I felt like I had just been kicked square in the stomach. Making a last, desperate, pathetic attempt for a sane ending to this farce, I asked (already knowing the answer) if the work on the rack-and-pinion steering had already been completed, hoping for some way to avoid going into spectacular amounts of debt in a real big hurry.

Silly me. Of course it had.

What else was there to do? I am already sunk for a now-$950 repair bill (boy, that went up since the estimate) and throwing on another $500 for something I can't drive safely without was a quick and easy "oh, what the hell, I'm completely fucked already, why not" decision. I didn't know whether to laugh like the damned, weep like an 8 year old, or simply self-combust in my chair. I opted for the former. Oh, that was cathartic.

So, we are now, what, somewhere south of $1900 on this car since last Saturday? You know, I'd rather not find out for sure. I borrowed some money from Greg and from Sarah to get all of this shit done, and it may or may not be enough, and I'm not sure I even care one way or the other and I'm about two steps from absolute rabid insanity.

Yeah, things can only get better, and I know they eventually will. Life is a bitch. Everybody hurts. When a man stares into the abyss and sees nothing but darkness, this is the time that he finds his character, et cetera.

Ten bucks says I get the car back on Wednesday morning and it still fails E-check.