Ben King: Dead or Alive?

A friend of mine named Ben King died on June 28th, 1996. Every year I do a memorial for him. Recently, a guy named Andrew emailed me who had lost track of a friend named Ben king, and wanted to know a little more to make sure that his friend still lived.

I felt intrigued. I told him my friend lived in Pleasanton, California. He had a younger brother and his parents divorced. Andrew said his friend Ben King has a younger sister, his parents stayed together, and he moved to the Carolinas or something. It fascinated us both that two people named Ben King would have similar interests (programming and Esperanto) that someone would confuse his friend with mine. Could this have to do with numerology?

Andrew also pointed out that Ben King’s seem to have a gift for technology, such as Ben King, the Chief Technical Officer of Voalte. They write health care solutions on the iPhone. Add another synchronicity. Ben would have loved the iPhone!

Every year I do a memorial, which usually entails playing Weird Al and other weird music very loudly. Ben always said that you had to play music loudly to get all the little details. They pronounced him dead at 05:50 A.M., so the ritual has to last until at least then. When we went to the Esperanto convention, we would wake up at 5:55, five minutes earlier than everyone else. Since Discordians consider five a sacred number, we considered this a good sign. I wonder what he would have thought about the time of his death.

I began by playing his trilogy of songs. He made them in an S3M tracker, the first easy way to make sample-based music on a PC. I have converted them to FLAC, a format which didn’t even exist then. Ben would have approved. I also gave them long filenames, which he would have also liked. You can find them here.

I then started playing some weird music he enjoyed. I really started getting into the vibe. Suddenly, everything stopped! Silent! Dead! The FLAC decoder must have crashed or something, because Liquidsoap just would not play these files, resulting in an ALSA error. But it plays everything else fine. So somewhere between the decoding and outputting my radio station and the memorial crashed. That did it. That put it totally over the top. I freaked out! The logical programmer part of me tried to understand, but…but…why right then at that moment? Ben? Goddess?

I restored things and decided to move on, hoping the error wouldn’t happen again. I played a bunch of Weird Al, leading up to the new album. In retrospect I should have done the new album first, then other more familiar things to just relax to, but whatever! All hail Discordia! We have a saying: When in doubt, fuck it. When not in doubt…get in doubt!

The new album came on at 05:23 A.M. Discordians consider five and twenty-three sacred numbers, so clearly that meant something. And I could not have arranged it, remember that the system crashed. I even rebooted just in case the kernel upgrade did something. As Bilbo would say: “Quiet. Magic is afoot.”

Let me first say that I grew up on Weird Al, as did a lot of people in my generation. If you think that Weird Al just makes kids music, it means that you have not listened to him as an adult. Trust me! If you only remember him from childhood, do yourself a favor and listen to these songs again as an adult. Imagine someone giving you a “cool piece of metal” to hang onto, then years later as an adult discovering that you had an ounce of gold all this time and just never knew. It feels like that.

I read some reviews on Amazon about the new album, called Alpocalypse. One reviewer hit the nail on the head: Weird Al is good, the music is bad. It got me thinking along those lines. In concert, he plays a clip of Emenem talking about his parody. “It’s stupid. It’s repetitive and annoying.” Al responds: “Well, don’t blame me, I can only change the words, not the music.”

The album starts with Perform This Way, a parody of a Lady Gaga song which parodies the artist herself. I confess I hadn’t heard of this Lady Gaga, but people consider her very popular, and she does shocking things like many performance artists. Her name makes me nervous. I enjoyed the song and its content, but already I knew the reviewer had gotten it right. Poor Weird Al, having to parody this crap!

Next we have CNR, another pop culture reference I didn’t get, but I had already heard that song on the Internet Leaks album so it didn’t bother me. Track 3: TMZ parodies a Taylor Swift song. I only know of her because we chanced to hear one of her songs at the ski resort. At least Taylor Swift can sing, so the song has a recognizable singable melody. Good.

Next another favorite from Internet Leaks, Skipper Dan tells the story of a guy who studied acting but ended up working as a tour guide. I’ve enjoyed this song since I heard it for the first time in concert. Polka Face continues the theme: great talent, awful modern pop. Still, you’ve gotta give it to Weird Al! Craig’s List comes next, a style parody of the Doors and another from Internet Leaks.

Now we come to my favorite track on the album: Party in the CIA. It parodies a Miley Cyrus song, who I only know because of her father, who Weird Al also parodied. I heard the original just to appreciate how well Al copies a song. I think a lot of people think parodying just takes mindless work and don’t realize the excruciating detail Al puts into these songs. To faithfully duplicate the backing and style of a song takes real talent, and Weird Al has it. The original became popular again on May 1st, when America killed Qadaffi ’s grandsons. Party in the CIA indeed! The original tells of a girl going to Hollywood and feeling lost, but cheering up when she hears her favorite music. Al turns this into a story of someone who works for the CIA and enjoys going on secret missions with all their cool gear. He even references the controversial practice of water boarding. A perfect song all the way through, it really made the album for me.

Next we have Ringtone, another from Internet Leaks. I must say, it took me a few listens but I like this song now. Of course, it has an iPhone reference, so how could I not? The end would make a funny meta-ring tone of sorts.

Now we have Another Tattoo. Back to the theme. I enjoy the words and the funny premise of writing about a guy who gets tons of tattoos, but this modern pop music just bothers me. The song does have a little treat for adults of you turn it up at the end.

Next comes If That Isn’t Love, a style parody of Hanson. Once I read that it made sense and I enjoyed the song more, even though I only know of one Hanson song and only because of my sisters. Whatever You Like also came out previously, and I absolutely love this song, it summarizes the economy perfectly and how people feel, many just trying to get by but still loving each other. Weird Al has such a gift for capturing the feeling of our culture.

And finally we have the touching song Stop Forwarding That Crap To Me! It reminds me of Don’t Download This Song, which finished his last album. It has a similar style and theme. This time, he sings about email forwards and the people who forward them. Trust me, you will want to save this one to forward in response. The song starts with the lyrics:

Oh the sand keeps falling through the hourglass
And there’s no way you’re going to slow it down
You say we gotta treasure each moment
Who knows how long we’re gonna be around</p>

Yeah you keep on telling me life is short
And its hard to disagree with what you say
But if time is so precious why ya wasting mine
‘Cause I’m always reading, always deleting
Every useless piece of garbage that you send my way.
I felt speechless. Perfect.

All and all I enjoyed the album. Rating it seems somewhat difficult, since I had already heard four of the twelve songs. It just bothers me that Al has to parody music that I don’t enjoy. At least he makes it palatable. I think I will give it five stars though, since I really like Party in the CIA. I only hope no one mistakes me for a Miley Cyrus fan if I start whistling the melody.

Though I enjoyed the album, it also made me sad. Pop music has changed, and having Weird Al as a reference just made that all too clear. The world has changed. It has become harder. Some might say that everyone feels this way as they grow older, but I think this feeling has some objectivity.

Just look at the headlines. In the nineties, we worried about Bill Clinton groping women. Now, we worry about TSA workers groping women. I don’t like that. The world in which I grew up and in which I feel comfortable has, like listenable pop music, begun fading into the past, like the Elven trees of Lorien in their winter.

A lot has changed since 1996. I have gotten older. We all have. Ben hasn’t.

At this point I can imagine Ben saying: “Whoa dude! You can’t just end the article like that! Tell them one of our funny stories.” We had gone to an Esperanto convention in 1995 and 1996, our reason for meeting in person. On the last night of the 1995 convention they had a loud party in the large room adjacent to our bedroom. Neither of us introverts felt like going, choosing instead to just greet the people who walked by who we actually wanted to talk to. The next day we finished packing. I had to catch a plane. We wandered into the room and saw leftovers from the night before. A quick bite wouldn’t hurt, especially before traveling.

We snacked on some food and poured ourselves cups of punch. We noticed the bunch tasted a little weird, but figured it had just gone a little stale from sitting out overnight. We milled around and continued snacking and talking, enjoying our time together. Suddenly, I had a funny feeling. “Umm man? I think I know why that punch tastes weird.” “Why?!” “Uh, do you feel kind of lightheaded?” He felt it. “Yeah!” We both started cracking up. Of course, we should have figured they spiked the punch. We didn’t even know. I had just finished my second cup.

We went back to our room laughing stupidly. We couldn’t believe it. I lay on my bed, bemoaning the fact I had to catch a plane. “Vi estas ebria.” said Ben. By that point another esperantist had joined us, probably attracted by our loud behavior. We all left together. Everything worked out.

And so it is that we, as men, do not exist until we do; and then it is that we play with our world of existent things, and order and disorder them, and so it shall be that non-existence shall take us back from existence and that nameless spirituality shall return to Void, like a tired child home from a very wild circus.
– Principia Discordia