I'm really into relentless, constructive self-criticism. I have to examine all my creative work for what it is: the rantings of a white, middle-class musician with a fondness for heavy metal, gadgets and...huh huh...chicks. An easily entertained guy who's more prone to watching late-night movies than reading up on the latest economic and political trends. A rather common disposition, I think.
Whether I'm writing a song, designing a web site, or writing an article, I try to maintain an awareness of my own stereotype. Sometimes I wear it proudly on my sleeve right next to my KISS ARMY patch. Other times I treat it like an embarrassing fetish that I've wrapped in pages torn from Marvel Comics, stuffed into the box that my Atari 2600 shipped in, and buried in the back yard. My character, my stereotype - whatever you want to call it - must be observed and carefully maneuvered at all times.
What type are you? Macrobiotic station wagon-driving soccer mom? Are you a goateed Jewish man into oil painting and Japanese food? Maybe an olive-skinned woman from New Jersey who still loves dancing to Duran Duran records as she dresses for a night on the town? A heavyset virtuoso pianist and full-time housepainter with nicotine-stained fingers? A sixty-five year-old father of three, Grand Poobah of your Masonic Temple, and expert in medieval torture techniques?
It's possible that you're a mild-mannered mid-western Generalist who really just wants to have a garden of her own. You might be a psychic bull-rider from L.A. with a nose-ring in each nostril and serious architectural talent that will never be fully realized.
People may comment that you have the perfect body for modeling, but you don't care because you're completely immersed in the creation of what will surely be the world's first and only replica of the Sphinx made completely out of empty Goya Bean cans and duct tape. You may have the voice of Ian Gillan, but you're still struggling with demons that first manifested when a group of girls in high school made fun of your pimples - so you work in a cubicle and spend your nights eating and watching E! television.
The more people watching I do, the more elaborately detailed my fantasies regarding the lives of strangers become. For example, the ever-popular Burlington Mall in beautiful Burlington, Massachusetts: A glorious fishbowl simply swimming with all manner of suburban creatures.
Yesterday, I saw a janitor making his way through the food court. He was pushing a gray plastic dumpster on wheels, stopping here and there to empty the overflowing trash bins. He was Hispanic. He looked about thirty-three years old. His face, pockmarked and stern, reminded me of a young Edward James Olmos. He wore a grayish engineer's cap. I observed this man for a total of thirty seconds or so, more than enough time to construct a satisfying fiction of who he was, where he came from, and where he goes at night.
I remembered reading in Fast Food Nation that sometimes restaurants will hire entire families. I scanned the vast, neon lit atrium, hunting for anyone with a resemblance. I saw someone behind the counter of Sakio Japan who looked like he could have been a younger brother. Two counters down I saw an older gentleman rapidly stabbing toothpicks into a plate of stir-fried chicken as he passed out free samples. The father? I wasn't too sure - these two seemed passive, more or less at ease with their jobs.
This janitor had an edge. Something dark lurking beneath the surface that made me think of dimly lit, crowded Brighton apartments, the air humid and dense with the smell of a hundred stew-pots. No, this guy lives alone, his family either far away in another country or simply non-existent. He works as a janitor at the Burlington Mall Food Court because it's all he could find. He used to work as a technical support specialist, answering phones and emails for a now-defunct electronic appliance retailer. He commutes twenty miles both ways in a 1996 Neon. He feels humiliated at having to clean up after fat, poorly dressed office workers all day, which accounts for his dark manner and sinister glare.
I feel obligated to say that this fantasy has nothing to do with Hispanic people or janitors in general. It's fiction pure and simple, a construction of a character based on nothing more than my own shallow, surface-level observations. I do this all the time. I like to think of it as an extension of my creativity. While the old stereotypes have been more or less scrubbed away by my Northeast education and a quality upbringing, these Hollywood-inspired life-scripts flash in and out of my world as quickly as the hundreds of books and movies that I devour regularly.
Many people would probably characterize me right away as the average white rock guy I described earlier. Maybe others may have noticed my earrings, spiky hair and goatee, and immediately dropped me into the Cubicle-Dwelling, Thirty-Something Sellout, Generation-X category.
Of course, this presumes that people are noticing and/or paying attention to me at all, which my ego demands must be true.
Brown eyes, brown hair, bluejeans and a T-shirt. Digs loud guitars and good design. Easily hypnotized by green-eyed blondes, shiny leather, B-movies, and brightly packaged foods. He's got a bustle in his hedgerow - but he is NOT alarmed.
ABOUT JEFF MILLER
more about jeff miller
IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
11.9.01 @ 10:49a
I do this all the time. I especially like to observe people in really swank parts of the city/mall/coffee shop/restaurant, because the "beautiful people" really have some interesting habits.
lee anne ramsey
11.9.01 @ 1:38p
I do something like this when I'm bored (usually while waiting in line somewhere and often times at church) - I like to cast all the people around me with actors.
That guy? He would be played by the guy who played the father on The Wonder Years. And the wife? She's the woman who plays the lead on Law and Order SVU.
11.9.01 @ 1:51p
Wow, deja vu... I was working in Mexico last week and met my project manager for Sunday brunch. I greeted her with a hug and kiss, and then we sat down to talk business. Later a woman told us that she had been watching us, and that it made her happy to see an American man vacationing with his Mexican wife. Ironically, neither of us was on vacation, the PM is single and from Costa Rica, and I'm married to someone else. But the fiction played much better in someone's imagination.
11.9.01 @ 2:11p
I have one word for you, Miller.
I was there recently, this summer, and man it's completely changed. No longer set up for the people watching experience. But I used to do this all the time on campus. What's even more fun is if you can do it with a friend. In fact, I still do this in bars today, which has gotten me in trouble from time to time.
11.9.01 @ 2:15p
There's a good scene about this very thing in Wonder Boys. It's funny because after creating a name, life and backstory for one of the people they are watching, he becomes a part of their lives and they refer to him by his character name for the rest of the movie. It's really funny. Off topic, but I went in expecting something very different from that movie, halfway through realized that, and loved it just the same. Great movie for writers. Especially complacent ones.
11.9.01 @ 4:05p
Ghost world has a similar scene that turns into a great storyline.
I usually do it when I'm out to dinner. It's fun watching a couple eating and wondering if they're on a first date, are just friends, or if he's about to pop the question. (Although most of those clues come from how they act towards each other, not necessarily what they look like.)
11.11.01 @ 5:51p
See, Jael? Someone else liked Ghost World, too!
11.12.01 @ 9:20a
I also liked Ghost World a lot.
11.15.01 @ 9:35a
You know, I love coming to this site and reading the columns and all of the chit chat in the discussion area - but I'm a bit sad that the discussion for my column ends with "I also liked Ghost World a lot.".
Boo-Hoo and Waahhhhh.
11.15.01 @ 9:43a
Here's a tissue. MY last column discussion had a stimulating conversation about cannibalism.
11.15.01 @ 9:49a
*sniffle*....*snort*....thanks...I knew I wasn't the only one...
11.15.01 @ 9:55a
Jeff, sorry about that, but maybe it'd help if you stopped acting like a Cubicle-Dwelling Thirty-Something Sellout.
11.15.01 @ 10:02a
Your damn right I should! Gonna grow my hair back, sell the SUV and start riding the train again like a friggin MAN! Gonna quit the job, blow off the bills, and write me a completely meaningless rock opera!
I've been led out of the darkness and into the light my brothers and sisters CAN I GET AN AMEN!?
11.15.01 @ 10:40a
11.15.01 @ 10:42a
Yes, it's much better if the discussion on your column ends with "Amen" instead of "I also liked Ghost World a lot."
"Completely meaningless" rock opera? Is there any other kind?
11.15.01 @ 10:45a
What's the difference between a rock opera and a concept album with a plot? (e.g., The Wall)
11.15.01 @ 10:53a
I'm waiting for a punch line...
Gee, I don't know, what is the difference between a rock opera and a concept album with a plot?
A: About 486 bars of Andrew Lloyd Webber?
11.15.01 @ 11:18a
What's the buzz, tell me what's happenin'!!
Oh, there isn't much of a difference. They both fail most of the time. With the notable exception of 2112!
Long live Rush!!!1
11.15.01 @ 11:48a
Now THAT'S what I'm talkin' about! High quality discussion about important things like prog rock and lines from J.C.Superstar! It even ties into the column, because Ian Gillan sang the lead role on the album release of Superstar. Thanks MJ!
11.15.01 @ 12:03p
Gillan is the guy from Deep Purple, right? But he wasn't in the movie...
I am gonna sound like an loser here, but "I don't know how to love him" is a great song. And there are some GREAT lines in "Superstar":
"Buddha was he where it's at, is he where you are? Could Muhammed move a mountain or was that just PR?"
11.15.01 @ 12:28p
Well, okay, but I wasn't talking "Rock Operetta" - I meant rock opera: Tommy, Quadrophenia....
What's the difference between Tommy and The Wall? This isn't joke; I actually want to know.
11.15.01 @ 12:55p
Why does there have to be a difference? I don't get it. Same concept, different stories and different bands.
11.15.01 @ 1:31p
There doesn't have to be. But The Wall isn't referred to as a rock opera and Tommy is. I was just wondering why. Also, the stories for those two have some pretty strong similarities, if you think about it.
11.15.01 @ 2:10p
well....let's see here...(tugs at his belt, rolls up his sleeves)...Tommy, Superstar, The Wall, Operation Mindcrime (huh? what's he talking about now?)...they all have a lot in common. I played guitar fro a theatrical interpretation of The Wall way back in 96, and many of the people involved were part of a group known as The Boston Rock Opera.
This same group does Superstar just about every year, and I think one local group even did Tommy.
So, I'm thinking that a 'rock opera' is something that is essentially a musical, with lots of actors, bad backstage catering, and horrible reviews. A concept album is just that -an album, performed live by a band instead of a bunch of actors with a lethargic pit orchestra, also with typically horrible reviews.
Top 5 concept albums:
Amused to Death
11.15.01 @ 2:18p
If you ever mention Operation: Mindcrime again, I will strangle myself. Silent Lucidity my ass (yes I know that's on Empire).
Joe's Garage is nice. All of Zappa's albums should be considered concept albums because they are so wacked!
You can't deny 2112, you can only hope to contain it.
11.15.01 @ 2:21p
Okay, so tell me what makes Tommy, originally recorded by The Who in 1968 a rock opera and not a concept album.
11.15.01 @ 2:26p
Perhaps because Townshend says so? Didn't he envision it as a musical type thing to begin with?
11.15.01 @ 2:31p
Bingo. Townshend wanted it to be a musical. The artist / writer should get the first crack at defining the work, then, years later, some hack can come along and produce it for broadway. Zap! It's an opera!
11.15.01 @ 2:41p
And what about Dark Side of the Moon? All about going insane, or being insane, and more specifically, original Floyd member/founder Syd Barett going/being insane.
Have you ever heard the first Floyd? Piper at the Gates of Dawn? WACKO.
11.15.01 @ 2:47p
Yeah, I guess Dark Side would have to knock Mindcrime off the top 5 list, but I figured Roger was hogging all the fun. For kick-ass concept rock, Roger wins for quantity. Hard to beat Animals too.
I have all the Floyd albums, even the old acid-drenched ones like Atom Heart Mother and Umma-Gumma. Virtually unlistenable to me now, but I have a lot of love for that band in all it's different forms.
11.15.01 @ 2:55p
Years and years ago, I used to deride Floyd as a "gimmick" band. Too much time spent hearing "Money" without listening to the album. I've since changed my mind.
In fact, I am listening to Dark Side now. Ever to the Wizard of Oz thing? Works just enough to make you believe it ain't coincidence.
11.15.01 @ 2:58p
I never did the Wizard thing...been meaning to get to that. Right now, I'm tuning into the new Rob Zombie CD. Pretty awesome stuff - sort of on the opposite end of the spectrum, but conceptual in a Lon Chaney kind of way.
11.15.01 @ 3:10p
Never into Zombie, band or solo. Too much for me. But The Strokes CD is phenomenal. Believe the hype.
11.15.01 @ 6:00p
Shame on me for not mentioning Sgt. Pepper's in this discussion of great concept albums. The mother of all concept albums, and probably the best.
11.15.01 @ 6:20p
Yeah, except wasn't that more of a soundtrack album? I'm not denying its greatness (one of the few DVDs I own). But I think the movie came before the record, not the other way around.
11.15.01 @ 6:23p
What the hell are you talking about? I'm talking about The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band...are you talking about the Bee-Gee's movie version? Holy mackerel you can't be!!
The Beatles' never made a Sgt. Pepper's movie. Just the album. Masterpiece.
11.15.01 @ 6:27p
I didn't mean for that to come off quite so harsh! Whoopsiedoodle!
11.16.01 @ 10:12a
God, no, not the Bee-Gees. It was late and I was tired when I wrote that, but thank God that's not what I was thinking of. I was actually thinking of "The Yellow Submarine." Still, shame on me, but not as much shame. At least the Lonely Hearts Club Band appear in "Submarine."
11.16.01 @ 10:18a
Yeah, when I got home I was like, OH! He must've meant Submarine! Which is a GREAT MOVIE. I have that DVD too.
And yes, thank God for all of us you didn't mean the Bee-Gees! HA!
11.16.01 @ 3:29p
Re: above, I thought Paul Rogers was the guy from Deep Purple.
Oh, and of course we're all forgetting the ultimate concept album of our times - "Killroy Was Here" by Styx. Such classics as "Mr. Roboto" and...that other song....
Well, maybe not.
11.16.01 @ 3:34p
AK: Paul Rodgers is the singer for Bad Company (and The Firm, and Free), Ian Gillan is Purple's most popular frontman, Glenn Hughes and David Coverdale also filled that role.
I've got all the meaningless rock trivia you need here....
11.16.01 @ 3:44p
Okay Jeff, who was Rush's original drummer?
11.16.01 @ 4:14p
John Rutsey :>)
11.16.01 @ 4:45p
Color me impressed!!
And noone can deny that the original members of Rush were the ugliest three-piece band of all time. ALL TIME!
Thos pictures still give me nightmares!
11.16.01 @ 5:18p
Spinal Tap. Ugliest three-piece band EVER.
11.16.01 @ 5:29p
Russ, I implore you, get a hold of Rush's 1973 debut album and look at the pics.
They weren't a comedy act. More like horror.
11.16.01 @ 5:52p
I looked. I stand by my previous declaration.
Though isn't interesting how Geddy Lee looks a fair bit like Lone Gunman Langly?
11.16.01 @ 7:36p
A fair bit? Try EXACTLY, but with blond hair!
11.19.01 @ 9:55a
You're saying both are uglier than the Jimi Hendrix Experience? Nuh-uh.
michelle von euw
11.19.01 @ 12:42p
Rush may be ugly, but their lead singer sounds like a girl.
11.19.01 @ 12:42p
Actually, he sounds more like a Banshee, or a bottle rocket.
11.19.01 @ 12:48p
OK, now, no need to insult Geddy. Just try and imagine Eddie Vedder or some other lumberjack singing Tom Sawyer, and I'm sure you'll recognize the absolute necessity for Geddy to sound the way he does. It just wouldn't work any other way.
11.19.01 @ 12:56p
Hey, I used to love Rush. Big time. But I can recognize the facts. His voice is nutso! And I don't think there's a need to insult Vedder.
Try to imagine ANYONE singing Tom Sawyer. I can't imagine anyone ever again writing those lyrics and then finding a separate person to belt them out. It's really amazing that Peart could write his crazy lyrics (about nature and science and mythology and future cars) and then Geddy and Alex were into them enough to go along with it!
11.19.01 @ 1:03p
Didn't mean to insult Eddie, just wanted to use him as an example of a polar opposite. The lumberjack thing, well...heehee...that's the way a lot of those 90's bands were dressing, so I guess that was kind of a dig. I still bought the records, though. I guess if anyone asked me, I'd pick the flannel over the white robes and spangly jumpsuits from 70's era RUSH.
11.19.01 @ 2:00p
I would totally take the lumberjack flannel over the pseudo-kimono look. And yeah, they are polar opposites, but they have peers. Like Geddy is the math nerd's Robert Plant, and Vedder is a talented, non-missionary Scott Stapp.
11.19.01 @ 3:21p
Okay, now you seem to be insulting Robert Plant.
11.19.01 @ 7:39p
Good god. Can't we all just get along? Next thing you know I'll be making snide comments about that bald vampire from Smashing Pumpkins....BTW I'm positive Geddy would gladly accept any comparison to Bobby Plant, math nerds or no math nerds.
11.19.01 @ 8:33p
Well I agree that Geddy may sound like a woman to a listener who is unfamilar with Rush. But once you get used to Lee, you get used to Lee and you recognize his voice. I like Rush. I'm not the biggest Rush fan out there. But I like them. Regarding peers. I wouldn't call Stapp a peer. I'd call him a Xerox pure and simple. A xerox that got all the genetic garbage with none of the good parts. Stapp is a good reason why cloning humans should not be made legal.
Two more notes: 1: Mike is right about the Strokes. Got their new album and it is great!!! 2: I, for some reason, always preferred Quadrophenia over Tommy. But then if I had to pick one Beatles CD to take to a desert island I'd pick the White Album. Oh wait, that's three notes. Never mind the numbers.