Sunday, July 31, 2005

No. 6 Tabaco y Chanel - Bacilos

In any top ten list, amongst the songs that have stood the test of time, is allowed one current obession--the song you throw on when you get up in the morning or give one last spin before going to bed, somewhat guiltily skipping all the other songs on what is a perfectly reasonable CD because you just have to hear it one more time. For me, "Tabaco y Chanel" has fallen into this category for a while now, and wins the No. 6 spot on that basis .

Bacilos are a Miami-based trio of Colombian/Puerto Rican/Venezuelan extraction. Over the last few years the band has gone from playing free shows in small Miami bars to being darlings of MTV en espaƱol. Their 2003 album Caraluna won a couple of Grammys and was a big hit throughout Latin America.

Their music is pleasant pop, mixing Beatles and other Anglo influences with a variety of Latin & Caribbean styles. Overall, it's a little slick and middle-of-the-road for my taste. But "Tabaco y Chanel", off their first album, is a genuine classic.

The first time I heard this song was in Ilo, on the south Peruvian coast, about this time last year. For those who read my post about Ana and Frank's wedding, this was the song which the newly wedded couple chose for the first dance of the evening after exchanging their vows. We were told it had been popular in the discotheques of Arequipa at the time they first met, three years ago.

I was already quite moved by the ceremony and, perhaps feeling the effects of the first couple of cocktails, a little susceptible to the emotion of the moment when they got up to dance. But the song was so beautiful, and the lyrics that I could hear so seemingly appropriate, that I swear it brought a tear to my eye. Before moving on to the next cocktail, I made sure I asked what the song was and who it was by.

"Tabaco y Chanel" is a mid-tempo ballad driven by a lilting violin over simple strummed acoustic guitar chords and a syncopated beat. Imagine the Waterboys at their most Celtic and misty-eyed romantic, underpinned by Caribbean rhythms and an extra touch of sexiness. The opening lines:

Un olor a tabaco y Chanel / me recuerda el olor de su piel
Una mezcla de miel y cafe / me recuerda el sabor de sus besos
[A smell of tobacco and Chanel / reminds me of the smell of her skin
A mixture of honey and coffee / reminds me of the taste of her kisses]

The song, it turns out, is another lament about fleeting and lost love, perfect exactly *because* it's lost. If anyone's picking up a trend with the themes of these songs, I suspect it's not just me, but reflects a preoccupation of folk and pop songs through the centuries. These lines pretty much sum it up:

Una rosa que no florecio / pero que el tiempo no la marchita
[A rose that never flowered / but that time does not fade]

That could be a direct quote from Petrarch--perhaps the godfather of the modern love song. Nothing is quite so exquisite as nostalgia.

The protaganist of "Tabaco y Chanel" is constantly asked about his lost love. Even the stars ask him the same question, and beg him to go back for her. He shows no sign of doing so, preferring to wallow in his memories. However, when I first heard the song at the wedding the repeated chorus line "Que vuelva por ella "("Go back for her") struck me as appropriate, because Frank had in fact come back for Ana. I guess even a love song can have a happy ending.

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Wednesday, July 27, 2005

No 7. Close Action - Big Country

What? I hear you universally say. I can guarantee that almost no one else has ever included this song on their top 10 list.

On the one hand are those who haven't heard much or anything of Big Country, or simply aren't fans of their music. To them, I can only repeat the strongly held belief of every true Big Country-ite: if you would only listen, not only would you become a convert, but the world would be a better place. Let me quote one fan, who does a better job than me at describing this conviction:

"I am torn between the frantic compulsion to track every one of you down and play [Big Country] for you, and the horrible, gnawing awareness that if I did, some of you still wouldn't be convinced. What a botched design-project people must be if these songs can make me feel this way, yet leave you untouched. If we don't share redemption this fundamental, no wonder we fight over abstractions like religions and copyright law. We invented guitars and drums, and somebody figured out how to coax these songs out of them. That should have been all we needed. Why does the planet still need saving? "

For those who need some background, Big Country, who released their debut album The Crossing in 1983, were often described alongside contemporaries U2 and Simple Minds as part of a new wave of Celtic rock, but their sound and style were truly unique. Driving rhythms were combined with soaring Celtic melodies from the twin lead guitars of Stuart Adamson and Bruce Watson; the songs vignettes from Scottish history, yearning romantic ballads or lyrical elegies about industrial decay in Scotland and northern England.

The band made eight studio albums up until 1999, but it was during 1983-86 that all their classic stuff (three albums, an EP and a movie soundtrack) was produced. Since the age of fourteen, when I first heard them, I've probably listened more to Big Country than to any other artist. No other music has ever struck me so hard and so viscerally. You only need to read the reviews to see that there's plenty of others across the world who feel the same way.

But even among hard-core BC fans, my choice would probably raise quite a few eyebrows. What am I doing picking "Close Action", the rather obscure track 4 off The Crossing? The acknowledged classics include "In a Big Country" (the one that even non-fans know), "Wonderland", "Fields of Fire", "Chance", "Look Away" and "Just a Shadow". Skip to tier two, the much-loved album tracks that lend their names to fanatics' web sites, and it still doesn't get a look in. I can only conclude that I see something few others do.

Let me confess that I always intended to pick a Big Country song for this list as a representative of their entire work. There are several songs which have missed out on the top 10 which have probably grabbed me more in isolation than any one Big Country song--yet Big Country have been too important to me not to have a song on the list. Is that cheating? I did tell you there would be a range of criteria.

There's many special moments in the BC ouevre. "Where the Rose is Sown" has the most neckhair-raising guitar chorus you'll ever hear. "The Sailor" off The Seer is an awsome epic which turns a gentle mandolin ballad into a drum-crashing opus. "Look Away" is probably the best straight-ahead pop song the band did. "Steeltown" evokes the rise and fall of the working-class dream with a vivdness and economy of phrase which is worthy of good poetry:

All the landscape was the mill / Grim as the reaper with a heart like hell
With a river of bodies flowing with the bell / Here was a future for hands of skill

But none of them are quite right. It's long been a source of frustration to me that I've never found the perfect Big Country song--all my favourites have little flaws somewhere. Perhaps this is just from caring too much.

In the end, the one I keep coming back to, to remind myself of what I love about Big Country, is "Close Action". To be fair, it's a something of a dirge. But what an epic, romantic dirge it is. Crashing drums, two separate guitar solos which lift the song into a different key and off on a cinematic journey across the wild Scottish highlands. And Stuart Adamson's singing at its impassioned best.

Like many other songs on the Crossing, the lyrics are a little cryptic. The first verse prefigures the more specific tales of industrial decay to feature on Steeltown, while the next two have mysterious references to sirens wailing and lovers waiting. There's no mistaking the chorus, however :

I will carry you home with the gods in my eyes
I will carry you home while the westerlies sigh

I reckon there's something uniquely Scottish about this. It partakes of the same fierce, yearning romanticism which is subtly different from the more mischievous, ironic Irish, and is exemplified in folk tunes like "Wild Mountain Thyme" and "Amazing Grace" (the bapipe tune, subtract the flaky religious lyrics which were added later). Big Country's music affected me in the same way as those tunes--with a chill down the spine and a twist in the pit of the stomach that I can only speculate is due to something passed down through the blood.

To anybody moved by the optimism of Big Country's best music, it remains tragically inexplicable that Stuart Adamson chose to take his life in a hotel room in Hawaii in 2003. The songs live on.

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Tuesday, July 26, 2005

No 8. Tunnel of Love - Dire Straits

For a while there in the late 80s/early 90s Dire Straits were a byword among rock critics for corporate blandness. After Brothers in Arms achieved massive success as a vehicle for introducing the new-fangled digital compact disc to the market, the band came to be ranked alongside Phil Collins as the absolute antithesis of the spontaneous, gritty adventure rock music was supposed to be.

Yet how many hip young types, of the sort who would have screwed up their noses if you said "Dire Straits", have I seen after several pints in the pub on a Friday, tapping their feet and grooving as the house band broke into "Sultans of Swing"? Or--perhaps a few pints later--looking misty-eyed over their Guiness as the jukebox played "Romeo & Juliet" and slurring "ahhh, this is a great song"?

Eventual corporate monsters or not, Dire Straits produced some undeniable classics. There's never been another song quite like "Romeo & Juliet", with Mark Knopfler's Renaissance troubadour acoustic guitar riff evoking a hot Verona night under the wisteria, while he mumbles bitterly about the girl who dissed him (apparently she was an actress called Holly something; after they broke up she was quoted in an interview as saying "Oh yeah, Mark Knopfler--yeah, I used to have a scene with him").

Yet, much as I love that song, I have to go for "Tunnel of Love" as the one that's had the greatest impact on me. Strangely, while many rock stars (and non stars) struggle to restrain their histrionic tendencies, Mark Knopfler seems to have the opposite problem. While he's always been one of the most unique and skilful musicians around, much of his and Dire Straits' music suffers from being restrained, disengaged, and ultimately therefore forgettable.

Only an external impulse such as having his heart broken ("Romeo & Juliet") or needing to produce a stirring movie soundtrack (the Celtic-tinged theme to Local Hero) has injected a sufficient amount of emotion and urgency to his songwriting to make it really interesting.

In the case of "Tunnel of Love", the story is that the impetus came from Mark Knopfler's brother David. A much less talented rhythm guitarist, David Knopfler was efectively in the band for being Mark's brother. After the success of their debut album, which combined sophisticated musicianship with some of the driving energy of punk, Dire Straits went away to the Caribbean and ended up recording a fairly meandering album called Communique. David had become bored, and told Mark he was sick of all the downbeat, jazzy stuff.

"Why don't you write something that makes your heart beat faster, you know, like on the rides at the fairground when we were kids?" he said. Shocked into action, Mark went away and came up with "Tunnel of Love", an eight-minute whirling ferris wheel of a song that captures the energy, excitement and mystery of the carnival.

The song opens with a snippet of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Carousel Waltz", then the band bursts in, with a guitar riff which sounds like an engine revving, and never looks back. For the Making Movies album, Dire Straits had brought in Bruce Springsteen's virtuoso pianist Roy Bittan, and he certainly adds a lot, with extra melodic threads filling out Dire Straits' previously somewhat dry sound.

"Tunnel of Love" is the tale of an encounter in the shadows of the fairground. The protagonist meets a mysterious girl, they hang out, kiss, and then she walks off into the night. Unobtainable and therefore perfect, as he realises:

I coulda caught up with her easy enough, but something must have made me stay...

Just by itself, that makes a rollicking song--but it's only the half of it. What follows is the best guitar lead-out, bar none, in the history of rock n' roll. It starts off slow, with a few plaintive notes, builds up as the band come back in, then reaches a somersaulting, tumbling climax of guitar and piano before fading out and leaving you wanting more.

This is the song that made me want to play the guitar. So enraptured was I by the expressive possibilities of the instrument demonstrated by Mark Knopfler on "Tunnel of Love", that the first time I heard, at about age eleven, I decided then and there that I had to learn.

Hmm, and it may also have been a subconscious factor in my decision to work and travel in a carnival many years later. That, I can assure you, did not turn out to be much like the song.

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Thursday, July 21, 2005

No. 9 Back on the Chain Gang - the Pretenders

OK, so I'm starting to show a penchant for mid-paced pop songs with simple guitar riffs. But while "Just Like Heaven" was about the form, "Back on the Chain Gang" is about the texture. Does that sound totally tossy? Let me explain. There's not much to choose between the Cure and the Dinosaur Jr version of the former song. In contrast, "Back on the Chain Gang" is a catchy tune with a great hook, but it's how the recording *sounds* that really propels it above the ordinary.

To anyone with one-tenth of a musical ear, the song is recognisable from the very first strum of the opening D-A-Em7 chord sequence.

[Ah, Em7! The most suggestive chord to grace a guitar...hovering seductively between Em and G, hinting at an eventual return to D...]

The Pretenders hooked up with the Smiths' Johnny Marr for this song, and it transforms their sound. While Marr was one of the most creative and distinctive guitarists of the 80s, the colour he brings to "Back on the Chain Gang" is really a team effort from him and his six-string Rickenbacker. No other guitar sounds quite like it once the reverb is turned up a little. That jangle that actually sounds like it has sunlight glinting off it was pioneered by the Byrds, and dominates the first three or so REM albums, but it's here that it's close to being showcased to best effect.

Then of course there's Chrissie Hynde's singing. Warm, effortless, and pretty damn sexy. There's almost a touch of the Arabic in the way she turns one syllable into three-ee-ee, and in the oh-o-oh-*oh*-o-ohs at the end of every line. This is a woman who sounds like she might even enjoy the occasional cigarette; today's pop starlets sound like the children they are by comparison.

On paper, the lyrics are nothing special, but each line resonates as it's sung, even: Circumstances beyond our control... Who would have thought a bureaucractic excuse could sound so sensual? There's a nice tight little couplet here, too:

Like a break in the battle, was your part
In the wretched life of a lonely he-a-art

Then, after the minor-ish bridge section, there's one of the most natural and effective key changes to be found in all pop music. Chrissie Hynde's voice floats upwards, turning the word "part" into *six-and-a-half* syllables, and the song heads off into its sunset of the final chorus and a fade-out of more jangling Rickenbackers. Beautiful.

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Wednesday, July 20, 2005

No. 10 Just Like Heaven - The Cure

The Cure were best known during the 80s as a "gothic" band who produced depressing epics to which teenagers huddled in their rooms and thought about slitting their wrists. But as their 1985 singles collection Standing on a Beach showcased, their other forte was writing original, catchy pop songs which ranged from the punkily sublime ("Boys Don't Cry") to the joyously ridiculous ("Lovecats").

Ardent fans were a little wary of the poppier tunes, fiercely protective of the band's "alternative" status at a time when that label still meant something. Then the alternative / mainstream distinction effectively disappeared from pop music, and to a new generation the Cure were defined by 1992's rather inane "Friday I'm in Love", meaning their place in music history has been re-evaluated somewhat.

In hindsight the apparent stylistic schizophenia actually made perfect sense. A thread running through all Robert Smith's songwriting was demonstrative Romanticism, whether this meant wallowing in dark, Byronic depression or flitting over the hills chasing the skylarks (or cats). Moody or madcap, the Cure's music had a colour and unpredictability that seems almost unbelievable from the vantage point of today's pop-by-numbers.

My favourite Cure song for a long time was "In Between Days" with its punchy bass and wash of lovesick keyboards. But it's "Just Like Heaven" which is the more enduring and perfectly structured song. There is something celestial about the opening, with the keyboards soaring above the Bach-ian symmetry of the falling and rising piano riff. Yet you sense that the melody could easily survive much rougher treatment--as Dinosaur Junior later proved with their thunderous cover version.

And that's even before Robert Smith comes in to howl of impossible, dreamt love:

Show me show me show me how you do that trick
the one that makes me scream, she said...

He's got an amazingly beautiful girl and she tells him he drives her wild. But after the instrumental break it turns out he's only dreaming (...I must have been asleep a day...). Doh!

As far as I know, this song was never a big hit anywhere, but a tribute to its enduring, crossover appeal is that it was regularly played on the radio in Arequipa when I was there, easily outshining the Latin pop and American rock fodder surrounding it.

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Saturday, July 16, 2005

My Top Ten Songs

It's winter. Days are short and the serotonin levels suffer. It's time to crawl into the cave and make some "best-of" lists. So, over the next ten days, if all goes to plan, I'll be be presenting my top ten best and favourite songs, with a brief discussion of each.

Why do people do things like this? I suspect Nick Hornby might have an anwer somewhere, but I've never managed to read one of his books all the way through, and they're all out whenever I go to the library.

I'm guessing it's something to do with the compulsion to give order and permanence to flickering, subjective experience. This is of course one of the fundmental features of being human--it's why we write things down and draw pictures in the first place. The Appollonian response to Dionysian sensation, or something like that.

The personal response to art or music, in particular, can be so intense and so private, that it sparks a yearning to crystallize, preserve and share it. The origins of art criticism may lie in this reaction. The historical designation of "canons" of good, mediocre and great art has surely been not only about conferring privilege and status on certain practitioners but also on a genuine need to bring intense subjective experience into the social, objective sphere (in fact, you could make a case that the assignation of relative value to works of art has accompanied the shift away from the highly social ways art was experienced in folk & mediaeval contexts).

This tendency seems to be accentuated in the geeky, the lonely, and the introverted. In part, perhaps, due to an overdeveloped ordering faculty and less facility for other forms of social communication (which in its extreme form heads towards autism?? --as with making best-of lists, a predominantly male affliction...)

On the other hand, best-of lists are an antidote in times when the Dionysian stuff is in short supply - when that raw fabric of experience gets duller, more restricted or simply colder. Like a squirrel dragging out nuts from its storehouse, you remind yourself that skies might be grey, but you had a good time once.

But enough half-baked philosophizing. On with my list. There are some key rules and caveats to note:
1) All the songs are popular songs from the last 50 years. In other words, there's no classical or jazz pieces or anything else here. Leaving aside my relative illiteracy in these areas, the key point is that a good list must remain focussed.

2) No more than one song per artist. This is an important rule; it forces you to think a little harder. Mine and I suspect most people's lists would be much less interesting were this rule not in place.

3) I've given the list some thought, but it remains something of a snapshot of my preferences, with a mixture of criteria for inclusion. I think the top 3 or 4 songs are pretty fixed, but if you caught me six months earlier or later, the others could well be different. (I may even totally kick myself in mid-list and realise I've left something major out). I'll try and explain the jusitification for each one as I go.

4) Comments are welcome. Feel free to comment on any of my songs, post your own top 10 list, or send it to me at

Tomorrow, No. 10.

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Monday, July 11, 2005

Review of the Sith

In the new series of Star Wars movies R2D2 is now able to fly around, propelled by little rockets in his robot legs. He has also acquired the ability to defend himself against agressors, zapping them with a retractable laser gun. In one scene in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith, he fights off three soldier droids by squirting them with oil and setting fire to it, like some kind of militant octupus.

This encapsulates what is so disappointing about the three forward-to-the past prequels compared with the charm and adventure of the original movies. In the original Star Wars, R2D2 was the systems robot with incongruous moral courage, seemingly more human than his twittering protocol droid companion C3PO. But physically, he was nothing more than a trash can on wheels; clunky and effectively helpless. In Hollywood these days, however, physical limitations will no longer do. Every acceptable character must be able to kick multiple ass.

Gone as well is the innocent mysticism of the originals, which evoked Arthurian legend, Samurai tales, WWII fighter pilot stories and more, while leaving a lot up to the imagination. We cheered for the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire without knowing all the politics of the affair--there was the simple sense that power must be resisted. The newer films heavy-handedly spell out the political context, which is supposedly an allegory of the fall of the Roman Republic, or Nixon's grab for power, or the machinations of the neocons and George W Bush in the present day ("you're either with me--or you're my enemy" growls the Sith lord formerly known as Anakin in the latest movie).

This has led to controversy about the "overtly political" nature of Revenge of the Sith, with some American conservatives grumbling about Hollywood liberal grandstanding. But to my mind the free-spirited original films were the more subversive.

The Jedi ethic has also been ruined. Previously, there was the philosophy that at times you have to "trust your feelings" over logic, while resisting the pull of anger and fear, and recognising that Darth Vader lurks within your own heart. Wishy-washy seventies idealism, maybe, but a view of how to be a good person and a hero that captured the popular imagination.

Now it seems that the Jedi practise a form of ascetic Buddhism, with (ugh) a "temple" where young acolytes are trained. Jedi-ism preaches withdrawal from emotional involvement; Yoda counsels the tortured Anakin that "you must let go of all that you fear to lose". Yet the supposedly unworldly Jedi leaders have no problem being involved in combat or leading military campaigns in all three prequels--they just can't have sex (how many people would have put "Jedi" under "Religion" on their census form if they knew that?). In their role of moral guardians to the political wing of the Republic, the Jedi resemble nothing more than Iranian mullahs.

Of course, I knew all this before I went to see Revenge of the Sith, and had appropriately tempered expectations. I was even forewarned that the Anakin-Padme love scenes between Haydn Christensen and Natalie Portman were even more cringeworthy than in Attack of the Clones. Nevertheless, I was still disappointed at the lameness of the bit we were all waiting for--Anakin's turn to the Dark Side to become Darth Vader.

To an extent, dramatic plausibility was always going to be a victim of the need to have two and a half films worth of Anakin as a fairly straightforward blockbuster action hero, yet morph by the end of Sith into a trachea-crushing lord of the Dark Side. He has to be led into temptation by noble motives--Anakin is tormented by dreams of his wife dying in childbirth, making him susceptible to the seductive promises of Chancellor Palpatine / Darth Sidious.

But the transformation into Mr Evil, when it comes, is ludicrously quick. When Palpatine tricks Anakin into intervening on his behalf and causing the death of Jedi enforcer Mace Windu, Anakin is still shocked by what he's done. Five minutes later, however Palpatine is telling him to bow down before his dark master and he's, like, "ok". Then he's off to slaughter the Jedi younglings and carry out some political assassinations on a distant volcano planet.

It seems to have slipped his memory that this was all about acquiring the power to save his wife; you'd think he'd at least be demanding some assurances from the soon-to-be Emperor before swanning off to murder people. But no. And when Padme tracks him down in the middle of the volcano planet and tells him that he doesn't seem himself, he goes straight into trachea-crushing mode on her. Sure, the dark side corrupts, but that quickly?

In order to enjoy this movie, you have to sit back and appreciate the sets, the spectacle and the light-saber fights, while smirking at the rest. As a New Zealander, it's hard not to chortle every time Temuera Morrison appears as the leader and genetic source of an army of cloned troops. You half expect him to say: "Commander, take your troops to the south quadrant. And cook me some eggs!".

You snicker at the Anakin-Padme scenes' dialogue, and smile knowingly when Anakin does his Darth Bush bit. You appreciate the (intentional) visual gags which have characters gaining a steadily more seventies appearance as the film wears on, in preparation for the moment when Darth Vader is rolled out in his original cape-and-helmet attire, complete with traffic-light chest unit. Padme even appears at one point with her hair done in Princess Leia spirals, which is nice.

You also (sadly, perhaps) chortle at Yoda turning into a self-parody. Back in The Empire Strikes Back, Yoda was a great character, the classic Wise Man in the Cave from innumerable myths and legends. His backwards syntax was a nice touch, and actually worked with the pithy things he had to say: "Beware the Dark Side. Powerful, it is".

In the prequel films, it's been getting steadily harder to keep this up, as Yoda has to utter ever-longer sentences. The crowning moment is just before the epic battle in the Senate, when the Emperor Palpatine annouces that he's going to take over the universe; a defiant Yoda gets to his feet and replies: "Not if anything to do with it, *I* have".

Classic. You can see a whole genre of Yoda-ised action hero phrases open up.
Clint Eastwood: Ahead go, sucker. Make my day, you will
Arnold Schwarzanegger: Be back, I will.

It's clear that George Lucas wanted to present this as a Shakespearean or Greek tragedy--there's that ironic moment at the end when the restored Vader enquires after his wife and the Emperor tells him with Iagoan spite: "It seems in your anger you have killed her, my lord". But so subsumed are the dramatic elements to special effects and blockbuster conventions that the best that can be managed is an enjoyable farce.

It's a tribute to the instinctive desire to see narrative ends tie up, that it's still totally compelling to see Skywalker become Vader, Luke and Leia be whisked off to different planets, and Yoda retire to the Dagobar System (which, like, he doesn't even say--my most disappointing moment). You'd watch it no matter how bad it was.

But if you want some real insight into the character and motivations of Darth Vader, Revenge of the Sith won't help you much. Nope, best to just read his blog.

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Monday, July 04, 2005

This time they've gone too far!

Unbelievable. The Cookie Monster, of former cookie jar-devouring heroics, has now learnt that"cookies are a sometimes food" and has broadened his eating habits to include fruit and vegetables.

I don't know where to begin to comment on this. Civilization is at an end. What comes next--"Oscar the Serotonin Disadvantaged"?

Some of the comments on this blog are rather amusing in their outrage about the matter. One 14 year-old girl writes:

"I think cookie monster should stick with cookies cause without cookies there is no cookie monster and that is just retarded!!!"

She may have a point. Another girl gets really worked up and leans on the caps lock key. During her tirade, she points out that:


Classic. Later, she arrives at the obvious solution. Threaten legal action:


I guess Sesame Street will see her in court.

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Friday, July 01, 2005

Oh-Two Epidemic Devastating Communities

New Zealand’s Oh-Two epidemic is worsening, with another weekend of carnage leaving 375 more users hospitalised, parents distraught, and police under siege.

On Auckland’s North Shore, emergency services were called when an out-of-control Oh-Two party got out of hand and revellers ran wild. Oh-Two was also implicated in an armed robbery in Pakuranga, stabbings in Lower Hutt and Winton, a light plane crash in Fiordland, a case of mistaken identity in Nelson, and a near drowning in the Hauraki Gulf.

Oh-Two is a highly addictive, flammable gas, which users inhale through the mouth or nose. Sustained inhalation can result in a deadly condition known as “hyperventilation” with symptoms including dizziness or lightheadedness, shortness of breath, belching, bloating, dry mouth, weakness, confusion, sleep disturbances, numbness and tingling, muscle spasms, chest pain, palpitations, panic attacks and even death.

Even worse are the effects of the drug when combined with alcohol. When ingested with large quantites of liquor, Oh-Two can result in extreme drunkeness. Police say that many of the amok-running revellers at the North Shore party had consumed a deadly cocktail of Oh-Two mixed with deadly cocktails.

Oh-Two use has also been linked to a number of different psychiatric disorders. Auckland Hospital head of Psychiatry Lucy McLean says that “one hundred percent” of patients currently being treated for schizophrenia and depression had at one stage been Oh-Two users. She says that even casual users of Oh-Two could be at risk of permanent brain damage.

The spreading Oh-Two epidemic is not confined to criminals and hedonistic partygoers, but has begun to infect young people in quiet suburban neighbourhoods. Christchurch dairy owner Bill Chaplin is one who says he has noticed increasing abuse of Oh-Two by teenagers who gather in the streets near his shop.

He says that the youths, some of them are as young as fourteen, form groups which occupy the pavement and sometimes even invade the street. One of the group speaks while the others listen. They then make raucous noises as they throw their heads back and inhale large quantities of Oh-Two, endangering themselves and intimidating passers-by and motorists.

Parents have been warned to check for possible signs that their teenage children may be abusing Oh-Two. Rosy cheeks, talkativeness, and an unusual “wide-awake” appearance may indicate that your son or daughter has been inhaling Oh-Two, says Porirua drug outreach team leader Hone Anderson .

In the light of Oh-Two’s devastating effects, Deputy Prime Minister Jim Anderton has called for the substance to be given special classification and attacked with the full weight of the law. “This is a Class A+ drug” he says. “Dealers should be put away for life and users imprisoned for their own good. We must stop this scourge of our communities”.

However, despite massive deployment of resources, police have not yet been able to track down a single laboratory manufacturing Oh-Two, and customs officials say they have repeatedly drawn a blank in operations designed to bust imports of the substance. Head of the national anti Oh-Two taskforce, detective inspector John Grant, confirms that this is an ongoing source of frustration for enforcement authorities.

“The stuff seems to appear out of thin air” he says