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Archive for the ‘Huh?’ Category

marchSOUNDTRACK: JOHN PAUL WHITE-Tiny Desk Concert #578 (November 14, 2016).

jpwThe name John Paul White always sounds familiar to me, but I have a hard time remembering just who he is.  He was, among other things, one half of The Civil Wars, a great folk duo (who I didn’t realize had broken up, oops).  He has also released a previous solo album and a new one last year.

He begins the set with “Black Leaf.”  It’s just his acoustic guitar and voice.  He plays some interesting chords and makes some great folk music.  He hits some nice falsetto notes in the verses. And I love the way the song changes direction in the middle–a dark little turn but one that is musically great.

Joining him for the next two songs are Kelli Jones-Savoy on violin and harmony vocals and Adam Morrow second guitar.  Before “Hate The Way You Love Me” he says I’m gonna switch guitars one every song so it makes me look like an accomplished guitarist.  He switches to a hollow bodied electric while Adam plays acoustic.

This song sounds very different, especially when the backing vocals come in (Kelli adds a very country inflected voice..and that violin too).  But the melody in the verse sounds so much like another song I just can’t figure out what.  It’s a great song though and that chorus takes it in a  very different direction.

Before “What’s So” he grabs another guitar and says “three songs, three guitars that’s not pretentious, is it?”  Before beginning the song he thanks everyone in public radio.

[paraphrasing] I’ll do anything for Bob.  He knows that.  I hope he doesn’t exploit that.  NPR is a big deal for a kid on the Alabama/ Tennessee line. You grow up around mainstream pop and country radio and you feel like a square peg.  Thank god for public radio.  Thank you for the work you do for people like me.

Now, I’ll leave you with one last one and then you have to go back to work.

For this song he grabs another acoustic guitar.  This one has a pretty raw sound, and he plays a great bluesy riff.   It sounds quite different from the other two and when they sing the chorus together, it’s got a great yearning quality.

When he finished, Bob walks up and thanks him and then says, “Did you say you were going to stay here and serenade us all day?”

[READ: March 1, 2017] “Thin Crust”

I enjoyed this story so much.  It is my favorite story in The Walrus in a long time.

And I also loved the play in the title.  When I think of thin crust I go to pizza.  But there’s also the crust of the earth.  And that’s what this story is about–that the crust is thinning.  Maybe?

And it starts out so strangely, I honestly didn’t think I knew what was happening.  A fisherman off of Los Cabos watches the horizon line as it wavers.  And then forms a “frozen indigo wall stretching the length of his vision.”  A cormorant dives into the water, misses its catch and the flies towards the void where “it slipped silently into nothing.”

What the hell is going on? (more…)

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febSOUNDTRACK: D.R.A.M.-Tiny Desk Concert #595 (February 1, 2017).

dramI had never heard of D.R.A.M. before (even though apparently his song b”Broccoli” has sold 4 million records).  So I was quite surprised to see the start of this blurb:

We all love a good redemption story: We’re front and center to watch our heroes get knocked down, and then we cheer for them to triumphantly rebound. What we’re witnessing with Shelly Massenburg-Smith — a.k.a. D.R.A.M. — is the culmination of a story marked by resilience and stubborn strength.

Making a hit record in the music industry is extremely difficult, and in 2015, D.R.A.M.’s debut single “Cha Cha” was on the brink of exploding. It was getting played in clubs across the country and bubbling on the charts…. Then Drake’s “Hotline Bling” happened. The reports are conflicting as to the inspiration for the record, but there are glaring similarities in the sound of each. “Hotline Bling” was even originally billed as the “Cha Cha” remix by Beats 1, where the song made its debut. Needless to say, “Hotline Bling” practically swallowed “Cha Cha,” but D.R.A.M. didn’t whine about it. He went back to the drawing board, crafting another smash. “Broccoli” became one of 2016’s biggest hits while setting up the release of his debut album, Big Baby D.R.A.M.

We recently invited D.R.A.M. to NPR to lend us his jovial spirit and brighten our workday; after all, his primary aim is to spread love through music. He was jarred by the Tiny Desk setting for a moment before the cameras started rolling. He’s accustomed to touching every corner of the stage, but like a pro, he walked to the desk, activated his signature smile and bounced through various highlights from his catalog. D.R.A.M., whose name stands for Does Real Ass Music, wrote his first selection, “Cash Machine,” right after he’d received his first big music check.

The crowd beamed more with each performance, leading up to a climactic rendition of “Broccoli.” The energy is all fun and games, but his talent is no joke:”Broccoli” is nominated for a Grammy this year, right alongside “Hotline Bling.” A victory would provide a fitting end to this chapter of D.R.A.M.’s career, but regardless of the outcome, he’s already victorious: Far removed from the “Hotline Bling” shadow, he’s already creating bigger songs and more memorable moments, like this one at the Tiny Desk.

His band consists of D.R.A.M. (vocals); Rogét Chahayed (keys); Taylor Dexter (drums); Wesley Singerman (guitar).  And the video begins with him walking through the crowd toward the Tiny Desk.  Unlike most artists, he plays a whopping five songs!  And while he is, indeed, full of smiles and joy, i couldn’t help but think that he was almost a goof.  He practically seemed like a Saturday Night Live spoof of a rapper.

“Cash Machine” has lyrics like “I love it when you talk to me / my cash machine” and it is seriously all about how happy he was to get a lot of money.  It’s almost naive (except for all of the cursing).  He says that he hopes all the ladies like his second song because it was written for them.  And once again, the lyrics are so strangely innocent and almost naive.  The lyrics of “Cute” are “I saw you on your Instagram and I think you’re cute….  Girl we need to go out on a date / We can really do a little something / If it’s cool I’ll pick you up at 8.”  And the music is sweet and dreamy too.

He says that he’s from Hampton, Virginia, which explains “Sweet VA Breeze.”  He says it’s a song about when things were “a little more simpler.”  He raps about “sitting in the treehouse” with the rather puzzling bridge of “Real love, feel love, taste love, smoke love.”

The next song actually appears on Chane the Rapper’s record Coloring Book.  He introduces “Special” by saying that it’s “nice to put a little motivational message out there in the world.  There’s a lot of fucked up shit going on… if we’re gonna be frank.”  He’s got a nice singing voice on this one.  It’s a rather sweet ballad, with the nice sentiment: “Everyone is special / This I know is true.”

And finally we get to the big hit that I’d never heard. It is such a strange song and the delivery here is even stranger.  He sings the opening lines in an over-the-top delicate almost operatic falsetto.

In the middle of the party, bitch get off me
In the cut I’m rollin’ up my broccoli
Ya I know your baby mama fond of me
All she want to do is smoke that broccoli
Whispered in my ear she trying to leave with me
Said that I can get that pussy easily
Said that I can hit that shit so greasily
I’m a dirty dog, I did it sleazily

The room is cracking up by this time.

And more lyrics:

Couple summers later I got paper
I acquired taste for salmon on a bagel
With the capers on a square plate
At the restaurant with the why you got to stare face
To know I either ball or I record over the snare and bass
Rapper face, dread headed
Golden diamond teeth wearin’
They just mad cause I got that cheese, bitch, I keep dairy

The original song (I had to check it out) has this keyboard that sounds like a penny whistle–so childish and goofy. But I love the big throbbing bass line that comes after every line–almost unexpectedly late.

He’s surprisingly vulgar, but he’s so goofy that it’s hard not to like him.

[READ: January 14, 2017] “JB & FD”

When Wideman wrote this story I’m sure he had no idea that Frederick Douglass would be exhumed into public consciousness because Trump is an idiot.

“Frederick Douglass is an example of someone who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I noticed,” he said.  “Harriet Tubman, Rosa Parks and millions more black Americans who made America what it is today,” he continued. “Big impact.”

I miss Barack Obama for dozens of reasons, but this guy’s mangling of English is certainly a big reason.

Wideman does not mangle English, of course.  And yet I haven’t really enjoyed the stories I’ve read by him.  And this one proved to be even more challenging for me than his others.

The JB is John Brown.  The FD is Frederick Douglass.  And the problem is that I don’t know enough about either one.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure if they lived at the same time (I have since looked it up–they lived at the same time and admired each other).  But even with that background, this piece is just confusing.

It is broken down into several short numbered sections.

(1) is all about Douglass finding his glasses and having dread.
(2) begins as a letter to Douglass, with the comment that Douglass remembers no beard, not wearing one himself nor a beard on Brown’s gaunt face (but every picture of Douglas has him with a beard).
(3) sees Douglas watch himself step to a podium to discuss “The Woman Question” and then goes home and drops dead [this is historically accurate].
(4) is written from the I point of view, apparently written about John Brown and his upbringing.
(5) is in the first person from John Brown’s POV (I had to look up who had the sons with which names).  I believe it is a letter to Douglass.
(6) contains a letter written by Mahala Doyle and given to John Brown as she awaited execution.
(7) is of Brown’s trip to Kansas and his time in prison.
(8) has three parts. In 1856, a note from Mrs Thomas Russell.  In 1858 John Brown molts (“His feathers shed. A change of color”). In 1859, a letter to Brown (presumably from Douglass).
(9) My name is John Brown and I want my son to hear the story of my name.  In this section someone is dictating to “this good white lady” who is writing every word down to send to his son in Detroit.  And the entire thing is written in dialect.

Beyond that, I’m not sure if this was meant to be a historically accurate portrayal, an imagination of these two minds meeting or something else entirely.  I read it twice and never really “got it.”

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april-5SOUNDTRACK: THE ZOMBIES-Tiny Desk #236 (August 12, 2012).

zombiesWhen I saw that The Zombies were playing Tiny Desk I was really puzzled.  I love “Time of the Season,” but beyond that I’ve never really thought about them.  I didn’t know if they were a one-hit wonder or if they’d struggled for years or what.  I certainly never imagined they were togetehr in 2012.  And the blurb addresses that:

Predicting music that will survive the ages just isn’t possible. And the very existence of The Zombies in 2012 is even more baffling.  Its best known song, “Time of the Season,” came out after the band had already broken up.

I also had no idea that Rod Argent, of the band Argent, was involved with The Zombies (or that he was still making music).  But there he is, talking about the reunited band and playing keyboards.  He tells us, e don’t normally play in such a stripped down version.”  For the Tiny Desk it’s just keys and vocals.  Colin Blunstone, the original singer was 67-years-old when he did this show.  And man, both of them sound great.

The open with another song that I didn’t know was by them: “She’s Not There,” another classic.  It’s unmistakable and sounds great. Blunstone is clearly pushing his voice hard (and it’s all the more noticeable in such a stripped down version).

The blurb notes: “We caught Blunstone early in the morning for this Tiny Desk Concert, a time of the day when his range was self-admittedly a bit strained. However, the essence is still all there and so is the chemistry between Colin and Rod, a chemistry that began 51 years ago.”

They have a new album (!) out.  Argent says they tried to figure out what would sound good stripped down and they “Any Other Way.”  It’s quite good but not as memorable as the other two.

“Time of the Season: sounds a little different—very slow and with out the “Ckh aaah” and backing vocals.  But Blunstone sounds great and Argent plays some great piano solos.

For the final song, they play “a big solo hit that Colin had” called “I Don’t Believe in Miracles.”  I didn’t know the song.  It was written by the guitarist Russ Ballard who was the guitarist for Argent.  It’s a good song, I can see it being a hit with his soaring voice.  At the end, he comments, “I missed the really high bit at the end—I thought my eyes might pop out if I did that.”

It was great to hear these songs live, and maybe I’ll have to see if they made any other songs that I’ve always liked.

[READ: July 11, 2016] “Gavin Highly”

I haven’t really liked the stories from Janet Frame.  And I found this one to be somewhat unsatisfying as well.

There’s an element of fairy tale about this story that I did like–with the narrator unsure if her memory is doing any good.

The narrator (age unspecified, but the story is a recollection from childhood) is talking about the man Gavin Highly.  Highly was a strange guy.  He lived alone and always had done so.  But there were stories about him–that he lived in a rabbit burrow and invited ferrets in for afternoon tea.  “But of course that sort of story couldn’t be believed by realists.”

For all of his eccentric living–never actually living in a proper house that anyone knew of–he did collect books.  People said there were books everywhere.   They were probably worth thousands of pounds and if he had a mind to, he could sell them and buy a nice place.  But he never would. (more…)

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oct28SOUNDTRACK: JASON LYTLE-Tiny Desk Concert #249 (November 5, 2012).

sonJason Lytle was Grandaddy.  Sure there were other people in the band, but it was pretty much all him.  And then he dissolved Grandaddy and started recording discs under his own name.

I loved Granddaddy, but didn’t listen to any of his solo stuff.  So I don’t really know how different it sounds.  For this Tiny Desk Concert, he plays two songs from his 2012 solo album Dept. of Disappearance and one Grandaddy track.

“Willow Wand Willow Wand” is a catchy song with just him and a drum machine playing a backing beat.  He sounds like the guy from Grandaddy but slightly different….

Introducing “Get Up and Go,” he explains that he’s been really enjoying playing his songs in this stripped down format.  He really likes making records that are big and produced.  And now he likes not feeling pressure to do them in concert that way.  He’s happy to not try to pull off all of the bells and whistles in a live environment.  “Get Up and Go” is a “happy and peppy song and this isn’t a happy and peppy version of it.”

This song is quite slow.  Again its him on guitar but at the appropriate moments in the chorus he hits a key on the keyboard and a little melody (very Granddaddy) plays briefly.

After this song you can hear Stephen Thompson ask “Robin, you like this?” to much laughter.

He says he finished an hour long session at Sirius XM.  He was completely by himself and he was really comfortable.  But playing music in front of people makes him nervous—you’d think he had it down by now.  But he tells us “if you’ve never done it before as weird as you imagine it being… it’s that weird.”

The final song is a request for Grandaddy’s “Jed the Humanoid” and that’s when I realized why he sounds different.  He sings slightly more falsetto in Granddaddy than on the solo songs.  It’s very subtle, but I can hear it.  The original of this song is very synthy, so hearing it on acoustic guitar (with the lyrics very clear) really changes the feel of the song.

After a verse, he turns a knob on the keyboard and this weird frog-like sound bubbles under the song (similar to the one on the record, which is neat).

And as he leaves the Desk, you can hear Robin say “the saddest song in the world.”

[READ: July 20, 2016] “Samsa in Love”

Basing a story on another story can be risky, especially when the story you base yours on is incredibly famous with a first line that many people can quote without looking.

But Murakami does something very interesting with Gregor Samsa in this story.  “He woke to discover that he had undergone a metamorphosis and become Gregor Samsa.”  We don’t know who or what “he” was before this and neither does he.  He’s not even sure exactly what he is–but he knows his name.

The first few paragraphs are all about him getting used to even being human–scoffing at his body, wondering why he was so cold and what that gnawing pain was in his stomach–hunger, it turns out.  He spends several paragraphs just trying to learn how to walk on two legs.  It’s all somewhat comical although not exactly funny.

Finally he gets downstairs–the table has been set for a meal but no one is there. Everything is still warm and yet the house appears empty. No matter, he tucks into the food wand eats everything.  Then he sets about trying to cover himself.  He looks out the window and sees everyone dressed, but he’s not willing to even attempt to put clothes on so he grabs a dressing gown and slips into that. (more…)

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sept1 SOUNDTRACK: WILLIAM BELL-Tiny Desk Concert #562 (September 7, 2016).

william-bellI’d never heard of William Bell before this show, although I see that he is apparently a classic soul singer with hits from Stax records back in 1960s.

Bell has a new album out this year and the title song “This is Where I Live” is a kind of autobiographical story of his life.  He sings of growing up and hearing Sam Cooke and then writing songs of his own that have taken him around the world.

I love the idea of “The Three of Me”: “Last night I had a dream and there were three of me.  There was the man I was, the man I am, and the man I want to be.”

The first two songs sound great–classic soul with horns and lots of bass and backing vocalists.

Bell’s voice sounds great as well.  He sounds like a veteran soulmaker.  And although he sounds timeless, I’d never guess he was 77 years old. And yet, he co-wrote “Born Under a Bad Sign,” which I thought was older than 70 years.

Either way, he plays it here.  I think his is the version I know least well (he mentions that even Homer Simpson has done a cover of it).  Bell’s version is, of course, great.

And here I have to mention his backing band  There are about 12 people all wearing bright yellow shirts.   And just about every person with an instrument gets to do a solo during “Bad Sign” which is why the song clocks in at about 10 minutes.

It starts with a great bluesy guitar solo, and then in turn we get to hear bars from saxophone, bass, organ, piano, bass sax, soprano sax and trombone.  The backing band is called The Total Package Band.  And they sound perfect for Bell’s music.

[READ: March 1, 2016] “Gorse is Not People”

Here’s another case of the same author being published just a few months after their previous story (June).

This story had a date at the end of the story–1954.  I had to look up some details about Janet Frame.  Turns out that she is an author from New Zealand and she began writing in the 1950s.

I don’t know if that’s what makes her stories seem so alien to me or what.  I found her previous story to be pretty inaccessible.  And this one is also pretty out there.  It also seemed very un-PC–which makes sense if it was written 60 years ago.  But the previous story was all about someone in a psychiatric home.  And this one is also about someone who is in a special place “in the yard where they put people who were strange in shape and ways” (more…)

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manualSOUNDTRACK: LUCY DACUS-Tiny Desk Concert #552 (July 29, 2016).

lucyI didn’t realize that I knew Dacus, but I’ve heard and loved her song “I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” for months (I just never knew she sang it).

In this Tiny Desk Concert, the songs have a really gentle feel (she plays electric guitar without a pick, using her fingers to gently pick out the melodies.  Although on record, the songs are a bit sharper.  But it’s her that is so intriguing.  A lazy comparison is Sharon Van Etten, but she has that kind of tone and delivery.

“I Don’t Wanna Be Funny Anymore” has a super catchy vocal melody and simple steady rhythm.  But it’s the way the electric guitar swirls around and her voice sounds dry and disinterested (and yet it clearly isn’t).  She’s not posing as a cynical youth, she is full of regret.  The last line is “That funny girl doesn’t want to smile anymore.”  When the song is done she says, “I always tend to smile after that line.”

Before the second song she asks if anyone else’s biggest fear is having a runny nose on Tiny Desk?  She says she woke up with a runny nose, but its fine now.

I like the way “Direct Address” opens with her gentle strumming which gets really fast as she ramps up to a quick vocal delivery on each verse.   But even when she sings fast, her voice is almost like a deep intense whisper.  Once again, the last line is great: “I don’t believe in love at first sight / maybe I would if you looked at me right.”  The song ends with some cool swirling guitars.

Before the final song she tells everyone there that the NPR workers kind of have the coolest job ever and she envies them all–a little bit.

“Green Eyes, Red Face” is a slower song with an interesting, subtle melody.  Another great lyric: “I see the seat next to yours is unoccupied and I was wondering if you’d let me come and sit by your side.”  I love the way the guitar kind of bursts forth for the solo by Jacob Blizard.  This song is the most like SVE here, although you’d never mistake one for the other.  The middle of the song has some really great riffs juxtaposed with the bass.

I like how this lyric quite a bit: “With your green eyes on my red face” and I get a kick out of how she plays her last chord.  And as it rings out she rests her hands on top of her guitar patiently waiting for the song to fade out.

I’m really entranced by her voice.  But one of the most telling things is at the end of the show just as it fades out.  When talking about their show that night, she says “we’ll be a lot louder.”

I’d be interested to hear that.

[READ: November 21, 2016] A Manual for Sons

Back in 2014, I ordered all 16 books from Madras Press. Unfortunately, after publishing the 16 books they seem to have gone out of business (actually they are switching to non-fiction, it seems). They still have a web presence where you can buy remaining copies of books.  But what a great business idea this is/was

Madras Press publishes limited-edition short stories and novella-length booklets and distributes the proceeds to a growing list of non-profit organizations chosen by our authors.  The format of our books provides readers with the opportunity to experience stories on their own, with no advertisements or miscellaneous stuff surrounding them.

The format is a 5″ x 5″ square books that easily fit into a pocket.

Proceeds from Barthelme’s book go to the The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Okay I’ll say it.

I don’t really get Donald Barthelme.  I know that’s sort of the point of his writing–it is all anti-writing, a reaction against the novel.  But I also don’t get things like this “story.”  (It turns out it is an excerpt from a larger novel, but that still doesn’t really help).

So this “manual” is designed for sons to learn all about the different kinds of fathers there are and how to deal with them.  It states that it was translated from the English by Peter Scatterpatter.

The manual lists the different kinds of fathers: Mad fathers, fathers as teachers, falling fathers, etc.

And it’s not really helpful and it’s not really funny, and I have to wonder what keeps things like this from just ending.  How does Barthelme know when his bizarre list of things is actually done?

Some examples:

Mad fathers stalk up and down the boulevard, shouting.  Avoid then or embrace them or tell them your deepest thought–it makes no difference.

Fine, that’s good.  But then he says to notice if their dress is  covered in sewn-in tin cans or if they are simply barking (no tin cans).  If they are barking

Go up to them and, stilling their wooden clappers by putting your left hand between the hinged parts, say you’re sorry.  If the barking ceases, this does not mean that they have heard you, it only means they are experiencing erotic thoughts of abominable lustre.

What the hell?

And what to make of this “some fathers are goats, some are milk, some teach Spanish in cloisters.”

Or this: “The best way to approach a father is from behind, thus is he chooses to hurl his javelin at you he will probably miss.”

There’s an alphabetical list of fathers names which all start with  A and end with Albert.  (And the list is pretty unexpected with names like: Aariel, Aban, Abiou, Aeon and Af.

The most successful section to me was the “Sample Voice” part.  It gave three examples of a crappy dad–abusive and unsympathetic and very masculine.

The “colors of fathers” was presumably modified from a book about horses as each color is a horse color.

There’s a disturbing section about incest and then about the penises of fathers.  And finally a discouragement to patricide.

I just don’t get it.

Rick Moody provides some answers in his Afterword.  He gives some context for this story and some of his favorite bit of this manual (which was originally published in a dark book called The Dead Father.  He says he really related to this story because one of the sections opens “If your father is named Hiram or Saul” (and his father had one of those names).

He puts Barthelme in context with Gaddis and describes this manual as hilarious.

Guess you had to be there.

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62SOUNDTRACK: THE JAYHAWKS-Tiny Desk Concert #555 (August 8, 2016).

jayhawksWhen The Jayhawks first had a hit back in 1992 (“Waiting for the Sun”), I actively disliked it.  I’m not sure why but at the time something about it really rubbed me wrong.  Now, I happen to really like the song. But more interestingly, I think that their newest album, especially “Quiet Corners & Empty Spaces” is fantastic.  It’s one of my favorite songs of 2016.

The verses are simple and catchy, the chorus is mesmerizingly fun to sing.  And the way the band fills in around Gary Louris’ voice is just perfect (and those harmonies, wow).  The version here is perfect–feeling a little more  “live” than it does on record (as it should)

“Lovers of the Sun” mixes the verses of an unwritten Sloan song with a 1960s folk California chorus.  The e-bow (which they’re worried didn’t get picked up) sounds cool and eerie at the same time.

“Leaving the Monsters Behind” has a bouncy bassline that propels this song and everyone sings delightful harmonies.  There’s close harmonies with Louris and higher ones from the drummer.  The middle section (ostensibly the solo) is really interesting for the way it shifts dramatically and the bass plays something very different from the bouncy main part.  The parts work very well together.

“Comeback Kids” opens with a high riff on the guitar and a slow bass keeping the pace.  I love that keyboardist Karen Grotberg switches back and forth between piano and this little synth pad thing that plays cool theremin-like sounds.  The riff that leads to chorus is really dramatic as well.  The ending, in which everyone sings some “oohs” and the riffs build and build, is right on.

I’m delighted at how much I’ve changed my mind about The Jayhawks.  And it only took 24 years (and many many breakups, re-formations and personnel changes) for me to change my mind.

[READ: February 26, 2016] “A Night at the Opera”

I found this story to be rather unsatisfying.  And it may have just been that when I printed it out, the first section was on one page and the second section–the start of page two–seemed so different that I wondered if I had somehow printed the wrong second page.

The story opens with the narrator reflecting on watching the Marx Brothers movie A Night at the Opera and how they laughed and laughed.

Then the second part jumps to a hospital known as Park House.  It is a place for people who need assistance all the time.  There are varying degrees of mental deficiencies in the hospital: the violent, the uncontrollably deluded, those who had murdered or who would murder, and the speechless. (more…)

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