Narcos: a TV show that could have been great. But wasn’t.

This story about Pablo Escobar, the government he tried to bring down and the cops who fought to bring him to justice should have been a lot more compelling.

Narcos is another OK TV series from Netflix. In fact, it’s probably the best OK TV series that Netflix has produced so far. But it could have been much more. Todd VanDerr Werff at Vox has a great review dealing mainly with the show’s over-emphasis on voice-over – I agree with pretty much everything he writes.

For me, the main problem with Narcos – a problem that affects many mediocre TV shows – including all of Netflix’s in-house content – is a lack of artistry. Watching Narcos, you never get the feeling that a genius is taking you on a journey. When an episode ends, you don’t feel the need to chat with the person next to you about what that installment meant, or what you thought the writers were trying to say. That’s something that happened with Mad Men (for all its faults) and certainly in Deadwood, The Sopranos, The Wire and a few other shows.

The sad thing is that Narcos could have done it. The show was extremely well made: nice photography, generally good casting, great locations, an emphasis on Spanish-language dialogue which I really appreciated. The first episode even began with a quote about magic realism and its roots in Colombia, which inspired some hope that we were going to get something different this time around. It could have been a great show. But every time it had a chance to take the viewer on a journey, to provoke or beguile, it opted instead for the safety of bland exposition.

Narcos is another OK TV show from Netflix. And all the more disappointing for it.

Review: Restaurant Ter Mar, Toroella de Montgrí (Girona), August 11th, 2015

A long-awaited meal at a new favorite restaurant, Ter Mar in Toroella de Montgrí, ended with us promising never to return.

[I didn’t have the presence of mind to take any photos to back this review up. You’ll just have to trust me.]

We’d eaten at Ter Mar several times previously and this was the 2nd or 3rd time that we decided to take some friends along. Since we discovered it last year, it seemed like the perfect restaurant for us: decent seafood and rice dishes, not too expensive, and only 10 minutes drive from the dog-friendly beach at l’Estartit. So we were looking forward to this summer’s lunch.

I’ll start with the service, because that’s where pretty much any experience with a restaurant starts. Ter Mar is clearly a family-run restaurant and the service is carried out by, I presume, four members of the family: the parents and two daughters. Of these four, only one of the daughters is any good. The other three are generally impatient, rude and unhelpful. They have all mastered George Costanza’s art of looking very stressed and angry all the time, in order to look like they’re busy. The ‘nice’ daughter (I don’t know any of their names) is friendly, solicitous and far more efficient than the other three put together. That said, we never had any real problems at Ter Mar. Until this visit.

There were three of us plus Larry, and we were meeting a couple of other friends at the restaurant. We arrived 10 or 15 minutes late but the covered outdoor dining area wasn’t full and this didn’t seem to be a problem. We ordered some drinks, agreed on some starters, and picked out a black rice and a paella to share. Gemma and I had shared a lobster rice last time we ate at Ter Mar (in May), and it was very good.

The starters arrived: fried whitebait, baby octopus, frogs legs, maybe something else. It was all pretty average both in flavor and presentation but not terrible. We were hungry after a morning at the beach, so we ate most if it. Next came the black rice. This is where things started to go wrong. The rice was below average in quality. It didn’t taste of much, even after adding the alioli. It was pretty disappointing but again, we were hungry so we persevered.

And then came the paella. The (nice) daughter who delivered it to our table immediately apologized for it “not looking very good” but insisted that it would taste just fine. It looked unlike any paella I’ve ever eaten. the ‘bits’ – the langoustines, mussels (yes), etc appeared to be positioned entirely at random. A good plate of rice is generally a little better arranged than that. And the color. The rice was an odd shade of grayish brown, clearly lacking even the smallest amount of saffron (which, as anyone knows, adds not only color but also flavor to paella).

I served everyone and we tried to eat it but no one got further than a forkful or so. The paella was dry and sticky, almost tasteless and very stodgy. This was rapidly turning into one of those situations where you rave to a friend about a restaurant you’ve discovered, take them along for a meal and are the served the worst food you’ve ever had. Between the five people at that table, we must have eaten hundreds of paellas. This was one of the worst that anyone had tried. You’d find significantly better paella on la Rambla, and at a better price.

The lads say it’s fine

We called the head waiter (the father) over and explained that the paella was below the standard that we expected. We explained that it didn’t look rice, didn’t feel right and didn’t taste right. He irritably asked what we wanted instead but we preferred to move onto dessert. So he moodily took the paella away with him and said he’d bring the dessert menus. Which he did, a few minutes later. But as he handed them over, he said that “the lads in the kitchen have tried it and they say there’s nothing wrong with it”. This wasn’t a good move. If the customers – a whole party – say something’s not up to scratch, it’s not. We each responded with our own suggestions for him, mainly along the lines of “Well, good for them. They can eat it”, or “Maybe that’s the problem”.

After a botched attempt at ordering desserts (we hesitated for, seriously, a second and the not-so-nice daughter spun on her heel without a word and left us hanging), we finally received our desserts and coffees. Nothing wrong here, so we cheered up a little and then asked for the bill. Which, when it arrived, included Paella x 3 – a bit of a surprise given that we’d just sent that back.

Don’t come back

Gemma went to have a word with the father and that’s where things really broke down. He refused to take the paella off the bill because “it was fine”. Gemma made it clear that we’d been there a few times and that we weren’t trying anything on, but the food wasn’t good enough. Finally, he shouted at her “Fine, I’ll take it off the bill. But if you don’t like it, don’t come back!”. Now that’s service.

So we won’t be going back to Ter Mar, and that’s a shame. it seemed like the kind of place that could become a regular fixture: three or four times a year we’d have lunch there. We’d take our friends and they might end up taking other friends. Instead, at the request of the owner, we will not be returning. Instead, I’m sharing this review with the world with the hope that someone, somewhere, might see it and decide against eating there.

Don’t bother going to Ter Mar. With few exceptions, the food is poor and the service worse. Try Picasso, just up the road from it.

On cultural decline in the 21st century

The popularity of super hero movies, comic book adaptations and colouring books for adults are all indicators that my generation is suicidally self-infantilizing. Many of us like to blame baby boomers (i.e. our parents) for everything: they inherited a world where things seemed to be getting better, where there was a consensus that society should care for and educate people, that problems could be solved; and then they privatised everything, introduced tuition fees, started acting like government should be run as a business.

But our generations – X (I insist, in my case), and Y seem to be doing as badly or even worse than the boomers. I mean at least people born in the 40s and 50s knew how to make decent movies. What do we get nowadays? Captain fucking America, X-Men, franchise reboots ad infinitum. Transformers. Vampires. Onesies. Adult colouring books. Are we really so illiterate and self-infantilizing? Is this just the result of us all doing completely meaningless and pointless jobs, rendering us guilt-ridden morons, unchallenged, unvalued, hopelessly conscious of the pointlessness of our labours but entirely lacking in a culture that helps us make sense of things. I sometimes think that Camus was a prophet. Much of his work, though he felt like he was describing his own time, actually applies to the post-modern era, where not even ideology exists as an outlet for our frustration.

And before you say it, no, I don’t think I’m putting culture from decades gone by on a pedestal. I know that there was an awful lot of trash around in the 70s, 80s and 90s. The difference is that there was also some counter-balancing great culture produced in those decades. Nowadays I struggle to find a reason to go to the cinema more often than when the Coen brothers have a movie out. Why would I? To watch Guardians of the Galaxy, an incredibly self-referential franchise-by-numbers 1 1/2 hour trailer (which, incidentally is regarded as being the very best of its genre)?*

If the so-called values of western society are under threat, it’s not from external forces. It’s the result of a marketization of society and culture, and a lemming-like self-infantilization which started out as bland nostalgia and has morphed into total cultural illiteracy. Where Alan Moore, with his verbose and fatuous interviews, and his trite and dull ‘graphic novels’, is regarded as being an eloquent cultural leader.

Maybe I’m just tired in the run up to the holidays. Maybe the colouring books are just a step too far for me to accept. Maybe I’m the illiterate one, unable to learn to relax and enjoy a world where Game of Thrones is considered as anything other than unwatchable pap churned out by an entertainment machine which aims to turn us all into pathetic adult-babies. Maybe the internet is to blame. It doesn’t really matter because it’s clearly too late anyway.


[*In fairness, I have recently seen a few movies which I enjoyed. Inherent Vice and Nightcrawler in particular where great fun]

Ornette Coleman 1930-Infinity

For me, the jazz legend Ornette Coleman was the man who gave me a thirst for understanding jazz. I’d listened to Miles Davis and John Coltrane. I had an album by Charlie Parker. I loved it all. But some of my musical heroes talked about Ornette as the great innovator. I needed to know why.

I soon found out. The first time I played Lonely Woman, I was gripped by its otherness. It was recognizable as jazz. But it was out there on the edge. It felt new, even decades after it was recorded. It’s still my favorite jazz standard.

We were very lucky indeed to see Ornette play at the Palau de la Musica a few years ago. He must have been around 78 years old. His playing was still beautiful, haunting, forceful and unpredictable. And then he played my favorite, Lonely Woman. A dream come true.

The Guardian’s interview with him from around the same time contains lots of quotes which seem to sum up the man. None more so than this:

Coleman’s first saxophone was bought with money he had earned shining shoes. “I thought it was a toy and I played it the way I’m playing today,” he says. “I didn’t know you had to learn to play. I didn’t know music was a style and that it had rules and stuff, I thought it was just sound. I thought you had to play to play, and I still think that.”

Thank you, Mr. Ornette Coleman, for being one of those rare people who really changes the world for the better. For not caring about the rules. For everything.

Royal Trux Reuniting

Sometimes I still think it’s a fever dream. My Royal Trux, the crab apple of my youth, the metallic taste in the back of my throat, the burning sensation, the dancing on the table that I never saw, the cracked elbow, the late night drinking sessions and swimming in the warm sea under the moon, my toxic shock and my broken heart… my Royal Trux are somehow getting back together.

I’ve written a lot of crap abou’t Royal Trux in my time. Probably because I’ve always thought of myself as the worst sort of fan: unduly taken with a band I consider to be vastly underesteemed in the Scheme of Things (and seriously, who cares about that?), yet uninterested in learning the key trivia needed to be a proper gig bore. I’m not a musician and while I can obviously grasp the relevance of production techniques, different guitars, pedals, recorded live, etc, I’m a long way away from caring which guitar Neil Hagerty used on the solo for Stevie (For Steven S.). I can’t even remember what year the albums were released. That said, in contact with some friends who have developed an independent love of the Trux (independent from my nagging, I mean), I’ve realised that Yes, I can stand tall. I know enough of the canon to hold my own.

Several people contacted me a week or two back when Drag City Inc. dropped the news that Royal Trux will be reuniting for a one-off gig at a psych fest in Los Angeles this August. Our good buddy C in that great city got there first with a Facebook post. “I’m going to need you guys to come out for this”, she insisted. But it won’t happen. We’re on vacation (cottage already booked). I can’t afford to go to LA for one (vitally important) concert. Actually, I could if I dipped into my savings but those are for… well, I don’t know but certainly not this. The bottom line is, I have to just hope that this one-off gig turns into something more. That I get a chance to see them play live, something I could never do when in their first incarnation. Drag City seems to think (hope?) so.

I’ll content myself with the knowledge that the impossible has been made possible (and what, apart from an adult attitude and bags of money could achieve that?).

So, “what is Royal Trux”?

Royal Trux is an American rock band consisting of former couple Neil Hagerty on guitar and vocals and Jennifer Herrema on vocals too. The best way I can describe their music is that it’s a blend of Exile-era Rolling Stones rock’n’roll & boogie woogie, free jazz-style harmolodics, Captain Beefheart’s swagger mixed with a large amount of heroin and 1990s irony. It’s great music, though sometimes inscrutible. Their attitude and aesthetic continue to influence bands today and yet relatively few fans have heard of them. I’m told that they’re more popular in Europe than the States and are (perhaps worryingly) loved by other rock bands and plenty of music journalists. Maybe because a lot of their stuff is music about music, comments on the scene? Primal Scream called them “the last true rock’n’roll band”. Lauren Laverne says they’re her favorites. Hagerty’s London gig drew Hot Chip, Spiritualized and (I’m pretty sure) Warren Ellis. Scaruffi rates them. They’ve got a song dedicated to Steven Seagal (featuring an absurd and absurdly good guitar solo), songs about junkie nurses, weed-growing operations, high school and police busts. One of their albums, Twin Infinitives, is ‘famously’ difficult to listen to and often mentioned in the same breath as Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music (it’s actually excellent, as you’d expect me to say). They once signed to Virgin and then got paid out an album early. It can take a while to get into them, I guess. But once they’re in your blood, in your brain, you never get them out.

Why, Lord, am I not going to LA?

Bootleg: Dante’s Vendetta

Review: Neil Michael Hagerty live at Café OTO, London, April 2105

Writing objective criticism is always tricky. Never more so than when describing a first experience of something long-awaited. So when I say that I’d wanted to see Neil Hagerty play live since around 1999, you will understand how difficult it is for me to be anything but effusive in my praise. When you’ve waited nearly half your life for a single evening, impartiality seems impossible. And disappointment almost guaranteed. Fortunately, the concert lived up to my expectations. So everything you read below is entirely objective fact.

Neil Michael Hagerty (Howling Hex) - Café OTO

In the days leading up to Neil Hagerty’s performance in London, I went half-mad trying to anticipate the concerts form. In my desperation, I sent Mr. Hagerty a tweet begging for a hint. No answer. Which was perfectly understandable. But despite this, I remained desperate for a clue – some hint of which version of the former Royal Trux guitarist we’d see. Eventually I settled on the single clue he’d given us: he was billed as Neil Michael Hagerty. Not ‘The Howling Hex’, his Fall-like rotating door of a band in which the only permanent member is the band leader himself. So I took this scrap of evidence and extrapolated that perhaps this could indicate a more melodic, poppy performance – much of the material released under this nomenclature is of a more traditional rock and roll style, much less experimental than the material released with the band.

Neil Michael Hagerty (Howling Hex), live at Café OTO

So when Hagerty stepped forward with his guitar and introduced himself and his two stage partners with a muttered ‘We’re the Howling Hex’, I smiled to myself and prepared myself for what must be the truest version of Neil Hagerty currently available: that of the repetition, the rolling rhythm and the emphasis which is the Howling Hex: a band which creates some of the most exciting rock’n’roll in the 21st century.

The concert was split into two sets with a 20 minute break between them. The sets were practically identical in the sense that they consisted of the same 8 or 9 songs in the same order, but entirely different due to the use of different guitar pedal settings and, in the second set, a more refined and professional-sounding delivery. Almost as if the band was responding to potential audience diffidence caused by the first set. Almost as if he were saying, “don’t worry, guys: I’m not a complete idiot”.

The tracks were picked from a range of the Howling Hex’s albums and most of my favorites were there. Hammer and Bluebird led the way, and we had Pair Backup Mess With and Lord Gloves (my current preference for guitar music: the cricket theme is an added bonus), among others. Hagerty focused on single lines from each track, adding to the mantra-like feel of the concert – the rolling rhythm, gradually evolving guitar parts and repeated chants in a dulled, offhand tone.

The band itself consists of Hagerty on guitar and bass (played on the same instrument through some sort of octave pickup, I guess); Eric van Leuven on drums and percussion, delivering the New Border Sound’s trademark fairground-like, Mexican-influenced rhythms; and Daniel Blumberg of Yuck as a sort of anti-hype man who spent 90% of the concert sat in a bar chair, sketching in a notebook, only to get up somewhat reluctantly to add his 2c for the chorus of each song.

Neil Michael Hagerty (Howling Hex), live at Café OTO

The overall effect was of an immensely willful and individual viewpoint on what rock’n’roll means in the 21st century. In turn energetic and meandering, vague and clean… a perfect synthesis of the genre’s inherent need for order and destruction. Would it have been possible for me to dislike this curious “I’m going to perform two identical sets that sound completely different” rolling maelstrom of a gig I’d been anticipating for so long? Well, yes. A few years back, I saw RTX (now Black Bananas) play and felt much less of a connection with the best of what Royal Trux always meant to me. Neil Michael Hagerty was on point: uncompromising and thus delivering beyond even my feverish expectations. I recommend you catch him next time you get the chance.

Normas de Uso de la Cafetera

“For best results, please ensure that you eject the used capsule

As soon as you’ve finished making your coffee”,

Pleads the notice in Spanish by the coffee machine in the office.

This gentle guidance is repeated on the arm of the device, visible

To the engineer as she vainly attempts to finagle a caffeine lozenge into the slot

Still occupied by the last worker’s pod, now left to dry against the pad

In flagitious disregard for the Rules of the Coffee Machine.

Softonic announces huge layoffs

As a former employee, I’ve got a lot to say about this story and the causes but my main thought is this: if it’s true* that Softonic announced that it had bought a San Francisco-based startup the same day it announced massive layoffs, that, for me, sums up what has changed in the company’s values… who on earth thought that was the right way to do things? How the hell did no one realize how that would look? What a shame.

[* This has since been confirmed to me by several current employees. Unbelievable.]

Apple’s about to end the age of the credit card

The standard if slightly lazy shorthand you see online when Apple starts to hype an event is: “OK tell me this: what’s so interesting about this product? Samsung/Sony/Rio/whoever already sells this. Apple customers = sheep.”

And I understand it. Computers existed before the Macintosh; MP3 players before the iPod, phones before the iPhone, and so on. We’ve all been over this a thousand times. It should be clear to anyone with a balanced viewpoint that Apple rarely creates entirely new product lines (in the global sense, I mean). Rather, it observes trends and identifies ways to create exciting new products which people will want to buy, generally with one or two exclusive features – a novel UI, for example, which place the Apple product ahead of the rest.

For the last couple of years, the rumor has been that Apple would release some sort of wearable device. Most likely a watch. I reckon that Apple allowed this puff of smoke to escape, fully aware that its prime rivals, Samsung (a company which really is less innovative than Apple), et al, would rush products to market in an attempt to preempt Apple’s big reveal. And if I’m right about that, it means that the competition has played into Apple’s hands.

Because none of the smartwatch products currently on the market has mass appeal. But they do have market presence, which means that Samsung, Motorola, LG and others have helped Apple with a bit of real-world market research. They’ve made the mistakes. And none of them have realized that they’re missing one key ‘killer’ application.

Yesterday’s confirmation by the WSJ (when the story is in the WSJ 5 days before an Apple press event, it’s 99% a confirmation) that Apple’s iWatch (or whatever) will include a Near Field Communications (NFC) chip for payments, is by far the most important fact we think we know about the product.

It just so happens that I work in a lab that tests payment systems. So although I’m no expert, I know a little bit about some of the technology involved. And it’s public knowledge that while the payment schemes (Visa, MasterCard, Amex and Discovery) would like us all to use our phones to pay in stores, only 1% of all transactions in the USA are made this way. Which is kind of strange when you think about it: all these people with their Samsung Android NFC-enabled phones ready to use Google Wallet as a mobile payment system, and yet nobody’s using it.

Part of the problem is probably that people don’t see other people using it. These things need a mass of users in stores and coffee shops to get moving. The other part of the problem is that if you need to get your phone out of your pocket or bag just to pay, well you may as well use your contactless credit or debit card as that’s no less convenient and it probably feels safer (more ‘official’).

Which is why Apple’s adoption of NFC in both its phone and its smartwatch is so important. Apple spotted one critical, ubiquitous technology that – in form factor if not in technology – has remained the same since the 1960s. The credit card is a dinosaur. Visa/MasterCard/EMVCo. know this. They’ve been trying to get people into mobile payment systems for years. But people don’t much listen to Visa, MasterCard or EMVCo. They take the card and payment scheme their bank gives them.

People do listen to Apple. Apple has hundreds of millions of generally satisfied customers, many of whom have already given Apple their payment details. And when Apple makes it clear that they have a product which allows for quick, secure payments,  plenty of people will take the plunge. And then, sometime next spring, other consumers will start to see them paying for their groceries and their morning coffee using just their wristwatch. And the beginning of the end of the credit card will have begun – with the explicit support of the very banks and payment schemes which introduced it.

It’s highly likely that in a couple of years, I’ll at the very least be leaving my credit and debit cards at home when I go out. Probably my wallet too (although I suppose I’ll need some identification, so wallets may live on for a while). And a couple – maybe four – years after that, I’ll be wondering whether I should keep my expired cards for posterity. Because they won’t be replaced.

That’s what Apple will announce on Tuesday. If you can’t see how significant this product will be, well go and comment about it on some website, I guess.

On the big screen

The closure of Club Coliseum, one of Barcelona’s last ‘full size’ cinemas was one of the smaller news stories in the city this week. Even though I never went there, I feel that it’s a shame. I’m sure there are plenty of lazy sods like me who feel the same way and yet never went to see a film there. But who has the time, right?

Given that your cinema-going experience will soon be limited to tiny salas with small screens and digital projectors, why not just save yourself the hassle and set one up at home? You don’t even need to dedicate a room : a retractable screen and a projector fixed to the ceiling don’t take up much space.

So that’s what I did. In our spare room, used approximately 3 times a year, I’ve installed a screen and an Epson projector. And it’s fantastic. Such good fun. Seriously, every home should have one.