New Year’s Countdown, December 31

Prince wrote this track in the 1980s, but became a New Year’s anthem, especially in the last few years of the century. Here it is for your enjoyment on this New Year’s Eve.

T Minus 1

Mariah Carey, who started this countdown and appeared throughout it, wasn’t the only one to write a perennial song that could be called their retirement plan. Somebody beat her to it by years, and that somebody was the late great artist forever known as Prince.

Even though it originally came out in the 1980s, you know the song, which is the title track from his album 1999. It seemed to get played every New Year’s ever in the last two decades of the 20th Century, and got played to death in December of 1998, then throughout all of 1999. It still makes regular New Year’s Eve comebacks, especially in years ending in 9.

Even nearly 40 years later and for all of its glorious 80s synth-pop sound, the song still holds up today, and I dare you to not find yourself moving to this one as you listen, whether it’s full-on choreography on your feet or a bit of a chair dance. Happy New Year — it’s already happened for some of you, of course — and here’s to the next year of the 2020s being better than the first two!

Check out the previous post or go back to the beginning.

New Year’s Countdown, December 30

With New Year’s Eve tomorrow, there’s still time for one last bit of holiday weirdness — Mariah Carey meets Radiohead.

T-Minus 2

I know Christmas is over but I happened to run across one more very interesting variation on All I Want for Christmas Is You. No fancy visuals with this one. It’s all about the words and music, with a mash-up of Mariah’s hit and another unlikely hit of another decade that fits it surprisingly well.

Watch from the beginning, or see the previous post.

New Year’s Countdown, December 29

Countdown to 2022, presenting the band Discordia with El día de los inocentes.

T Minus 4

Okay, it can be hard to continue a theme like «Navidad española» after Christmas is over, since that means “Spanish Christmas,” although in a lot of the Hispanic world, the Christmas season runs up until January 6, known as Epiphany in English but as El día de los Reyes Magos in Spanish — the day of the Three Wise Kings.

And yes, in no tradition do they actually visit Bethlehem (or Belén) on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day. They may have even seen the sign about eight months before they set off on their journey. That’s right — Jesus was hardly a newborn infant when they showed up around the Winter Solstice and was probably actually born in the Spring, maybe in April. Well, relatively speaking. Since Passover (Last Supper, anyone?) also tended to be in April around the third decade of the second millennium, Jesus pulled the Shakespeare trick of being born and dying in the same month, although Shakespeare may have even managed to die on his birthday — no one knows that one for sure.

But that’s the long way ‘round of getting to the connection for this video. First, it’s in Spanish, although it’s not a Christmas carol. Second, it refers to another Hispanic tradition that was celebrated yesterday, December 28th, which is El día de los inocentes. This commemorates the day that Herod had all of the newborn males in Bethlehem killed, just to make sure that the new King of the Jews wouldn’t make it to adulthood and cause any trouble. In a lot of the Spanish-speaking world, though, the day is celebrated with pranks and jokes, a lot like April Fool’s in the English-speaking world.

This song is called El día de los inocentes and it’s by the band Discordia, a now-defunct band from Brazil, although here they sing in Spanish. Either that, or I suddenly understand Portuguese! There are no subtitles, so enjoy song for its melody if you don’t understand. If you do understand, then you’ll see why the title of the song is totally apt, and how even though the band split up almost a decade ago, what they sing about is still relevant, as much in Brazil as in the U.S.

See the previous post or read the next.

New Year’s Countdown, December 28

As the Countdown to 2022 continues, here’s a comedy number from the group Straight no Chaser.

T Minus 5

Sure, it’s after Christmas, but that doesn’t mean it still can’t be the “It’s not Just Christmas” theme. I’ve covered Chanukah, Kwanzaa, and Diwali. Hell, even Festivus Now here’s a song that combines all of them, all of the Christmas carols, and provides a reminder of the annual madness we’ve all just survived.

I give you the group Straight No Chaser, which in some ways echoes another group seen here several times, Out of the Blue Oxford, performing both Santa Baby and All I Want for Christmas Is You. Both started as college a cappella groups, but the British version stayed with the university as an organization with an ever-evolving cast while the American version struck out on their own. As they describe their evolution, they went “from an undergraduate singing group at Indiana University to a beloved Atlantic Records act with a devoted international fanbase.”

Their first release was the holiday album Holiday Spirits from 2008. This song was the lead track from their 2009 holiday release Christmas Cheers.

Check out the previous post or the next, or start from the beginning.

New Year’s Countdown, December 27

New Year’s Countdown: Happy birthday Marlene Dietrich, who here serenades David Bowie with the song Just a Gigolo.

T Minus 5

On this day in 1901, Marlene Dietrich was born in Berlin and lived into her 90s, with a career that spanned from when she was 18 and performing in Berlin nightclubs to a long film career in Hollywood.

She was an icon, and made her last feature film in 1979, appearing opposite David Bowie, who was 32 at the time. Its American title is Just a Gigolo, and yes, that song does appear in the film and, although the film is set in post-WW I Berlin, the song is not anachronistic, since the story moves along far enough to have the Nazis starting to muck with things.

The original song, entitled Schöner Gigolo, armer Gigolo, took lyrics written in Austria in 1924 and set them to music in 1928. The English version was written in 1929. Incidentally, the original German-language version was a tango.

In this clip from the film — which was widely panned and which Bowie himself regretted making —Dietrich’s character sings it to Bowie’s after basically humiliating him in front of a roomful of fellow soldiers.

Incidentally, the film was supposed to be a black comedy. I’m guessing that people just didn’t get the joke.

Watch from the beginning, see the previous post, or experience the next.

New Year’s Countdown, December 26

Happy Boxing Day. As 2022 approaches, here’s Dropbick Murphy’s very Irish ode to the season.

T Minus 6

Christmas is over, but doing this countdown has been so much fun that I decided to reset the clock to bring us into New Year’s and the first day of 2022, which is also the first year of the second decade of the 2000s. A lot of people don’t get this and think that the 20s started in 2020, but time doesn’t work that way. Otherwise, the day after December 31 would be January 0.

I think the confusion over when decades begin and end comes from how humans count their own ages. Yes, on the day someone turns 20, they are no longer a teen, but that’s because we start counting at zero, and on their first birthday they turn one. Decades, centuries, and millennia all start on the first day of year one and you have to have all of the digits, so it runs 1 all the way to (1)0.

But forget that for the moment. Happy Boxing Day, everyone! This is more celebrated in the British Commonwealth than the U.S., but in honor of this most British of holidays I bring you the most Irish of bands, Dropkick Murphys, with The Season’s Upon Us. The song may be a day late for Christmas, but it’s probably a more honest depiction of how a lot of you celebrated yesterday. Plus it continues the Christmas Countdown theme of Funny Thursday. Enjoy!

Watch from the beginning, see the previous post, or experience the next.

Closing Day

When you come from a 24/7 city. Christmas Day can be very weird as almost everything shuts down.

One thing that I understand is kind of unique about most big cities in the United States is that things don’t close. Or, rather, companies will close in the evening at various hours and open in the morning, but most of them that serve the public are also open seven days a week, including Sundays.

Some, like grocery stores, pharmacies, convenience stores, and gas stations, are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Smaller businesses, particularly family-owned ones, will often close one or two days a week, but more often than not they will choose to close on Monday and stay open on Sundays.

Traditionally in theatre — although I don’t think this is strictly limited to the U.S. — Monday is “dark night” when the regular show does not go up. Large theatres play six days a week. Most small theatres only have shows up on Thursdays through Sundays.

Unless you live in a “dry” county in a state that set it up that way, you can also buy alcohol any day of the week, provided that you do it during the hours it can be sold. In Los Angeles, “last call” at bars is at 2 a.m. Beer, wine, and liquor are all available at bars, liquor stores and grocery stores. Sales hours are from 6 a.m. to 2 a.m., except in areas with special restrictions, i.e., a store is within a certain distance of a school, in which case the cut-off is 10 p.m.

This does contrast with other places, like New York State, where you can only get beer at grocery stores but have to buy wine and liquor at designated liquor stores, with bars being the exception, of course, where you can get all three. Oddly enough, beer can be sold 24 hours a day any day of the week, while wine and liquor can only be sold 8 a.m. to midnight Monday through Saturday in stores, and noon to 9 p.m. on Sundays. There’s also no alcohol service in New York City before noon on Sunday, although that law may have changed.

But here’s the point. If I have the sudden urge to go out and get comfort food at a diner at 3 a.m., then I can probably find one open within a few miles of home. If I need emergency medication or run out of TP at midnight, same thing. If I suddenly wake up in a panic and realize I need gas at 4 a.m., I can drive out and get it

Not everything is open at those hours, of course, but not all of them need to be. I’m unlikely to need to get a suit cleaned in the middle of the night; it can wait until morning.

The real life-saver, though, is most places being open on Sundays as well. I’ve been in towns where everything shuts down on that day, and it’s a royal pain in the ass because there’s nothing to do. These are places where they expect people to spend all day in church, so no distractions, dammit! But I couldn’t think of a bigger waste of time if I tried.

There are a few larger cities in the U.S., many of them which originally had a very strong Catholic influence in local government, that do have local “blue laws,” which do say that most businesses cannot open on Sunday. Fortunately, L.A. isn’t one of them.

And this is why Christmas is always so surreal to me, because it’s the one day of the year that almost everything does shut down. The roads are deserted, and even most of the 24/7 places are shuttered. You can still get to an open E.R. (that’s A&E in the UK) and both Chinese restaurants and 7-Elevens are still open.

You may not have heard of 7-Eleven if you’re not in the right region, but it’s basically a convenience store that got its name when its hours were 7 a.m. to 11 p.m. Those hours eventually expanded to 24, but the original name stuck. It was the major inspiration for the Kwik-E-Mart in the Simpsons, and in 2007, eleven 7-Elevens in the U.S. and Canada were turned into real-life Kwik-E-Marts for a brief time as a tie-in to the Simpsons movie.

I was lucky enough to visit the one near me in Burbank, and it was a trip. Since then, Universal Studios in both Hollywood and Florida have permanent Kwik-E-Marts within their parks, and there’s a stand-alone faux (but licensed) Kwik-E-Mart in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

As for the Chinese restaurants, since they’re the only places serving on Christmas, they have become very popular places over the years with Jewish residents of the city, who take their families out to dinner every Christmas, or order take-out.

This one isn’t limited to just L.A. — it’s pretty common in any large city with a substantial Jewish population.

One other thing you can always do on Christmas Day? Go see a movie! Theatres are open because they’ve grown savvy to the idea that once all the gifts are open and the family has hung out together for too long, the big treat they can share is getting the hell out of the house and enjoying the latest film together.

I have a friend who, pre-COVID, used to host an annual Christmas event in which a group of us would gather at the local multiplex, and then spend the entire day watching as many of the newer releases as possible.

People could come to see all of the films, which was usually about six or seven, unless there were a couple of shorter family flicks in the mix, or they could pick the films they wanted to see and join up with the group then. I think the whole group would meet for breakfast before the first show, which would literally be the first show, and then everything was timed out to go from theater to theater with minimal time in between except for a quick dinner beak.

Lunch would be handled via theatre nachos, hot dogs, and the like some time during the first early-afternoon movie. Although I never did the full experience — mainly because there were a lot of films I didn’t want to see — I made it to a couple, and it really was a great way to spend Christmas.

Note: Studios do not actually release Christmas movies on Christmas because it’s too late. Those come out in November and usually get yanked right after Christmas. A lot of new releases actually tend to be horror, action, or Oscar bait, especially because one of the qualifying rules for nomination used to be at least one week’s theatrical run in Los Angeles County (or one of six other qualifying metro areas).

Technically, a film has to show in a theater in Los Angeles before it shows on any streaming, video on demand, or other broadcast service in order to be eligible, and while it seems like that rule may have gone out the window, the non-theatrical exhibition is limited to “on or after” the first day it plays in L.A.

So schedule the first showing as a midnight screening, release it on digital as that screening ends, and you’re safe.

The important qualifier is that the film has to air during the calendar year ending on December 31st, so by premiering on Christmas, they get the exact number of screening days that they need. And a lot of prestige releases get pushed into December anyway, before Christmas or on it. This year saw films like West Side Story, The Matrix Resurrections, Spider-Man: No Way Home, and Being the Ricardos all pop out in December, with American Underdog, The Tragedy of MacBeth, and Licorice Pizza coming out on Christmas.

But this is all the long way around of me saying how weird I find Christmas Day in Los Angeles to be — more so if it’s a weekday and not a Saturday or Sunday — but I can pretty much only go to a couple of stores for urgent necessities, get fresh Chinese food, or see lots of movies.

I think I’ll just stay in, instead, and stream lots of movies at home. Or write stuff. Or both.

Merry Christmas Day — or whatever you do or don’t celebrate! And, as always, greetings to all of my international followers. Don’t be shy. Say “hello” in the comments!

Image source: Artaxerxes, (CC BY-SA 3.0), via Wikimedia Commons

Christmas Countdown, Christmas Is Here!

Merry Christmas with greetings from OK GO.

Christmas Day

OK Go right to it. One of my favorite bands for oh so many reasons — start your education here — but they combine math and science and music and create amazing videos as well as give back to the community and they are (mostly) L.A. locals and I couldn’t admire them more if I tried. So, with no further ado, here is their way pre-fame Christmas wish for you all on this Christmas Day.

Check out the previous post, or start the countdown to 2022!

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas! Here’s one more Out of the Blue Oxford video for you. Enjoy and go donate to them if you can.

The day is here, but whatever you do or don’t celebrate, I hope that your end of 2021 will help wash away the bad times of the last two and lead to better things in 2022.

Meanwhile, here’s another charity single from Out of the Blue Oxford from 2017 that’s a lively medley of things. Support the group and the charitable work they do to help keep a children’s hospice going, and happy holidays!

La tormenta navideña/The Christmas storm

Right in time for Christmas, a major winter storm (finally) rolls into L.A. Here’s a bit of L.A.’s history with water from the sky.

Southern California — indeed, the whole state — has been on the dry side for a while now, which is why we’ve had so many big fires in the last few years. Everything dries out, then we hit a point, usually around late summer or early fall, when the Santa Ana winds kick up.

These are hot, dry winds that blow in from across the desert, so generally from the southeast. They can pick up a lot of speed as they roll down the mountains into the L.A. Basin as well as the various valleys around it — San Gabriel, San Fernando, Santa Clarita, and Simi, for example.

While these winds are blowing, humidity drops to practically nothing and all it takes is one spark to set off a firestorm — an untended campfire, a moron with a cigarette, a badly maintained utility transformer blowing up in the heat, or a lighting strike. And, of course, there’s always the occasional insane arsonist thrown into the mix — people who should just be shot.

But, after a brief visit from rain for about a day early last week, we had a storm roll in late on Christmas Eve eve (i.e. December 23rd) that delivered everything and more that we were only promised with the previous storm, which turned out to be a disappointment. Around where I am, we only got about a half a day of light rain.

This time around, it’s been coming down steadily, sometimes building up to windy and very wet, and it’s still going. This phase is expected to continue to past midnight before breaking, then return on Friday and possibly continue into Saturday.

The only downsides, of course, are flooding, and for all of the sewer and drainage work the city has done since the 1930s, we still have areas that always wind up with standing water. Sure, it’s not enough to reach the tops of first floors, but it can be enough to require a lot of sandbagging around ground-floor entrances and storefronts.

Still — better than it was before the city turned the L.A. River into a long concrete ditch that runs from the north end of the Valley all the way down to the sea at Long Beach. That’s pretty much its original route, but the idea of lining it in concrete was so that it actually had a higher carrying capacity, the dirt banks wouldn’t collapse and possibly block the river, and there were opportunities to make it wider and straighter than the original river to speed flow.

Never mind that they never made any provision for storing most of the water that flowed down the river into the ocean. L.A. was already doing a very good job of steal… buying its water from the Owens Valley up north and from the Colorado River, thanks to William Mulholland. See Chinatown for a very fictionalized version of the concept.

In addition to the concrete river, they also created a huge flood control basin in the middle of the San Fernando Valley that normally pretends to be an urban park, right next to a dam and reservoir. The impetus for this basin and the L.A. River project was a flood in 1938 that killed 144 people. I’ve seen pictures, and it wasn’t pretty — plus the flooding was not limited to just the Valley or L.A.

The basin is actually a natural bowl within the Valley itself, including its lowest point. At the time of construction (1941), it was on the eastern edge of development in the Valley, just past all the aircraft plants that had sprung up in Van Nuys and the suburbs built to house their workers.

It’s deceptive because it doesn’t seem like it’s lower than everything else when you drive in there, and has various parks and recreational areas, including Lake Balboa, and is home to several nature preserves. But when major flooding is expected, all roads in and out are closed at the top and the place has filled several times over the years, saving the rest of the Valley around it.

Still, we do get small floods everywhere, which is a reminder of something that might not be noticeable to casual observers. The floor of the Valley is not at all flat, though it might appear to be. For example, there’s a natural high spot along the old river where it goes north to south near Coldwater Canyon and it’s slightly downhill from there in both directions, toward North Hollywood to the East and Sherman Oaks and Van Nuys to the west.

Flooding tends to happen where that downhill flattens out at the bottom and even though it’s not terribly steep, it has an effect. They’ve mitigated it somewhat in the last decade or so, but the main intersection in downtown NoHo, at Lankershim and Magnolia, used to flood curb to curb on all four corners and, when it was particularly wet, go higher than that.

I remember a number of rainy nights there where the storefronts were sandbagged and you’d still be sloshing through four inches of water up on the sidewalk. Since the curbs themselves were already so high, people could easily get soaked to the knees by trying to cross the street.

One additional problem, which was weirdly fascinating, was that the storm drains couldn’t handle the capacity, so that at certain points instead of water flowing down them it would come shooting out in a strong backwash that was truly a sight to see.

Parts of NoHo still flood, particularly the parking and right lanes both ways on Magnolia, and there are more than a few intersections where experienced drivers know to slow down because they’re flooded and will send flumes of water everywhere when some moron tries to blast through at 40 mph.

Another famous place to avoid when it’s rainy is Sherman Way as it passes under the Van Nuys Airport. In order to facilitate building the runways, engineers decided to drop the street and build the runway above it. This created a fairly long tunnel that cars drive down into before coming back up on the other side.

On dry days, it’s actually kind of fun, and people still honk their horns as they go through to hear the echo. On rainy days, though, long-time residents know to avoid the area, because the entire tunnel often winds up submerged, and that’s not a place you want to drive your car into. Fortunately, they can usually block Sherman Way in time to reroute traffic, but there have been times when the tunnel has been slightly flooded — not enough for the water to hit the bottom of the overpass, but enough so that unsuspecting drivers won’t realizing their driving into water that’s too deep until it’s too late.

Since the whole thing is a divided road, one you’re on it, there’s not really any opportunity to turn around and get back out. Fun times!

The most bizarre water behavior I’ve even seen in L.A., though, happened when I was living in West Hollywood (okay, L.A. County, not L.A. City) during a time when we had one of Southern California’s historical great floods — like the one in 1938.

I have no idea what was going on in the Valley, but WeHo is located directly below a mountain ridge that separates it from the Valley, so the rain can go one of two ways — north and down or south and down. It’s a 50/50 shot, really.

Top this off with there being a natural spring near the top of Laurel Canyon on the WeHo side that will gush out of the street when the groundwater goes up, plus not a lot of natural channels for the water to come all the way down other than the canyon passages that were carved through the mountains long ago.

The end result was that my street, which ran from Sunset Boulevard in the North to Santa Monica Boulevard in the south, about half a mile, was very steep, and the water pooled along Sunset, which created a natural barrier — except where it didn’t, i.e., streets like mine.

I remember walking down to the lobby of our building with neighbors to marvel at what was happening. Our street had basically turned into rapids, with water streaming down it at a good rate of speed, and splashing up onto the curbs as well. Now, for some reason, it decided to get really funky right in front of our building.

I still don’t know why, but the water had come over the curb and onto the parkway where it seemingly randomly gouged out the dirt in just one section of the parkway, fluming through and past it before returning to the downhill flow.

Oh — one note: In America, what we call a “parkway” is actually a narrow strip of grass or a section designed with planters and trees that comes between the roadway and the sidewalk. So it’s generally not more than two or three feet wide, and mostly designed to create insulation between pedestrians, traffic, and parked cars.

I suppose that we could have gone whitewater rafting down the street that evening, but we decided not to. After all, we didn’t have the rafts lying around!

Obviously, I’m writing this before Christmas to put up on Christmas Eve day, but it would certainly be nice to have actual winter weather like wind and rain for the holiday weekend. Sadly, L.A. rarely gets my one favorite kind of weather, which is a thunderstorm. They are few and far between and generally disappointing, with a few lighting bolts, some lame claps of thunder, and that’s it.

And I’ve only ever known it to snow or hail twice in my life in L.A. that I can think of, both of which were very short-lived phenomena as well. Of course, actual snow would paralyze this city for as long as it stayed on the ground. On the other hand, I really don’t have to drive anywhere right now.

So I won’t dream of a White Christmas because that’s impossible here, but I will hope for more rain (and snow in the mountains) because we need it. Happy holidays, everyone, no matter what you do (or don’t) celebrate!

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