Tag Archives: the flicker of reality

The Bands that Don’t Reform, by Antony Harding and Darren Hayman

by Carl Wilson

Hefner, in their salad days, with singer Darren Hayman at left, drummer Ant Harding second from right.

I’m beavering away on my lecture for next week’s 2011 Pop Conference in Los Angeles, where both Chris and I will be presenting among tons of other prominent nerdz. I’ll be schematizing the various ways artists have violated or repositioned the “fourth wall” in their music and how that may or may not relate to reality TV, creative nonfiction and other recent phenomena. I’m not sure if this example is going to fit into the talk (it’s a bit slight) but it tickled me to stumble across it.

Darren Hayman (last seen on B2TW posting a song a day in January) has just put up a single that he recorded with his ex-Hefner bandmate Antony Harding a couple of years ago, “The Bands that Don’t Reform.” The meta-reflexive-whatchamacallit of the project is evident in the title, of course: Here are two members of a band that’s not reforming nevertheless semi-reuniting,  and flirting with the subject in an era when many groups of their ’90s vintage such as Pavement and the Pixies were getting back out on the road to finally get a payday proportionate to their reputations.

But the wink gets more strobe-like in velocity on the very pretty song itself, which turns out to be the story of a couple in the throes of disillusion: “Something here ain’t right/ I loved you at first sight, so why don’t I love you tonight?” They run down all the traits that are driving them apart and reach out in desperation (“tired of getting no sleep”) to “count the things we both believe,” of which there seems to be only one: “We love the bands that don’t reform.”

It could read as a pretty thin joke about a couple of those aforementioned nerdz realizing that they only have their petty music-fanatic dogma left in common, but there’s a second, more bittersweet layer: If they don’t think even the relatively minor business of a rock band trying to reunite has any hope of a good result, then why are they trying to glue together a couple of split-up hearts?

These scenarios seem to melt into each other as the song goes on; many details involve driving from place to place and having mishaps (though also seeing beautiful scenery) like a band on tour. As they explain elsewhere, the love story is a camouflage: The song is about how “they were both crazy when they were in Hefner,” and aren’t crazy anymore, and so won’t ever take the chance of starting that project up again.

Which is another mirror-within-a-mirror: In the song, they’re the audience not wanting their favourite bands’ selfish profit- or glory-seeking to spoil memories of things past; but behind the half-opened fourth wall, they’re musicians with private reasons not to reunite though their fans persist in wanting them to.

Although they don’t say reunite; they say reform, with its other meaning of  shedding bad old habits, becoming a healthier, more law-abiding citizen, not crazy anymore. So the song whispers under its breath, “You don’t want us back like that, anyway, reconstituted as some bland grownup working unit. You want us crazy.”

As Bill Hicks once put it, “When did mediocrity and banality become a good image for your children? I want my children listening to people who fucking rocked! I don’t care if they died in pools of their own vomit! I want someone who plays from his fucking heart! ‘Mommy, the man Bill told me to listen to has a blood bubble on his nose.’ Shut up and listen to him play!”

On the other hand,  Bill Hicks is dead, and while it was cancer not the drugs and alcohol and cigarettes, it may be his own reform came too late. Besides, Hefner were never exactly the trashing-hotel-room types; they were the critics’-darlings-who-look-and-sound-like-critics kinda band.

So this song sees both sides, tells its ambiguous story with a loping, lullaby-like lilt rather than a Hicks-like roar. They still play from their hearts; those hearts are just calmer, and heavier, now, and they play them as they lay, and let sleeping bands lie, in both senses of the word, as we ought to expect by this point.

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10 Things I Liked in 2010 (Singles, Supervillains, Socialism)

by Chris Randle

[I totally lifted this concept from Greil Marcus as well. My list is unranked and impulsive to the point of randomness; I avoided writing about anything I’ve already touched on at B2TW. And now, all hedges and caveats aside…]

1. Yeahhhhhhh

John Seroff’s epic Singles Jukebox blurb is a beautiful consideration of “Whip My Hair,” but to me the clip below embodies this ultra-processed, aggressively silly song. What’s more absurd, more galvanic in its absurdity, than a weak-voiced nine-year-old touting their “swag” and finally managing to convince? A parrot dancing to the same track! I can only assume that the lone Youtube user who clicked “dislike” here is even now teetering atop Mt. Crumpit with a sleigh full of stolen presents.

 

2. Damascus, Palestine, Texaco

A cut from Jean-Luc Godard’s maddening, cryptographic and sometimes very funny Film Socialisme:

 

3. “I’mma start rocking gold teeth and fangs” (Nicki Minaj’s 32 feral bars)

Still waiting on the music video, which promises lots of squicky necrophiliac imagery (I was hoping for a colony of bats nesting in Rick Ross’ giant beard), but “Monster” already has a storyline: it’s the track where Nicki Minaj reduces the world’s two most famous rappers to afterthoughts.

Her feat is less impressive than it appears on a tracklist; wheezing Grizzly Bear fan Jay-Z sounds like an awkward fogey here, and while Kanye acquits himself well enough, even pulling off a good punchline for once rather than a stupid non-sequitur (“Have you ever had sex with a pharaohhhhhh / I put the pussy in a sarcophagus”), he still strains as an MC. His other guest doesn’t. Nicki’s virtuosic verse mutates new flows, accents and personae at rapid speed: “Pink wig / Thick ass / Give ’em whiplash / I think big / Get cash / Make ’em blink fast.” She shares Kanye’s monstrous ambition, but not his self-pitying insecurity. Her climactic “AAAAAAH” modulates a scream queen’s cry with sharpened glee: suck in breath, grope around on the floor for your male gaze.

 

4. Light the Pentagram-Signal: Doctor Hurt in Batman & Robin

This one requires some nerdy backstory. Five years ago, DC Comics made Scottish weirdo Grant Morrison the writer of its main Batman series. (His anarchic 1990s head trip The Invisibles influenced my teenage self to a degree that is almost embarrassing.) A characteristically metafictional conceit of Morrison’s early issues was that all the Bat-archetypes from 75 years of publication history – the original pulp vigilante, the bizarre ’50s version who wore zebra suits and inspired Adam West, etc. – were his actual memories, and the stress of keeping these disparate personalities straight was driving Bruce Wayne insane.

The process was accelerated by Morrison’s new villain Dr. Hurt, a mysterious psychiatrist who claimed to be Bruce Wayne’s newly-undead father Thomas and then distributed evidence revealing that the orphaned hero’s parents were not saintly philanthropists but a locus of corrupt decadence. Eventually, in a crossover called Batman R.I.P., he put on a camp opera outfit, injected Bruce Wayne full of drugs and dumped him on the street to subsist as a disturbed homeless person. Then our protagonist made a new costume out of rags, regained his bearings with the help of fifth-dimensional imp Bat-Mite (seriously) and they had a big fight. But Dr. Hurt returned in 2010 for a final storyline that Morrison called “Batman R.I.P. repeated as farce.” It began, context-free, with this scene:

It’s a perverse inversion of the most familiar origin story in comics, one so famous that Morrison and artist Frazer Irving can go minimalist and rely upon iconic visual elements (the pearls that always scatter, the eternally recurring Zorro marquee). Dr. Hurt’s masturbatory fantasy comes complete with the sort of infernally opulent yet faintly ludicrous sex club that only exists in Radley Metzger movies. Remember the sight gag at the end of Rosemary’s Baby, where an upside-down cross is repurposed as crib ornament? The longed-for Black Mass emphasizes Hurt’s unusual nature as a foil: he thinks that merely killing his foe is so dull. “I will be Batman in my great black car, preying on the weak, in Gotham’s endless night.”

The conventional idea of an obsessive super-nemesis is strange enough already; imagine one who yearns to expose every certainty in your life as a pathetic, comforting lie. He could be a jilted fanboy. Even after discovering that the bad Doctor was neither Thomas Wayne nor the devil, just (in his creator’s words) “this gibbering idiot with a very comic-booky origin,” his anti-prologue retains some Satanic allure. In a storyarc that also featured Shavian villain Professor Pyg raving about “the multitudes of the mother goat,” it was the creepiest moment of all, a flourish of satirical geek-blasphemy.

 

5. The moral responsibility of the blowjob artist: How Should a Person Be?

The second novel by friend of the blog Sheila Heti was, as they say, a long time coming. (There was an impatient Facebook group, even.) It still doesn’t have an American publisher, and a new article in the New York Observer speculates why: Too much cribbing from reality? Too many graphic descriptions of blowjobs? I would add another factor, one that took me by surprise despite my membership in that social-media cheer squad: the extreme depths of black comedy that Sheila reaches. There are lantern-faced fish swimming alongside some of these jokes. How Should a Person Be? is about struggling to live the good life, whatever that is, and Sheila the character’s earnest, agonized desire to become a great artist (or at least a famous one) is played for many painful laughs.

A later chapter, for example, ends with this passage: “I hadn’t realized until this week that in [Moses’] youth he killed a man, an Egyptian, and buried him under some sand…I used to worry that I wasn’t enough like Jesus, but yesterday I remembered who was my king; a man who, when God addressed him and told him to lead the people out of Egypt, said, ‘But I’m not a good talker! Couldn’t you ask my brother instead?’ So it should not be so hard to come at this life with a bit of honesty. I don’t need to be great like the leader of the Christian people. I can be a bumbling, murderous coward like the King of the Jews.”

As a blond gentile with an Old Norse surname – some drunk girl once asked me, “Did you steal your eyes from a dead Nazi?” – I felt a little uncomfortable just reading that. (The sexual interludes, not so much, perhaps because they’re specific to a particular situation.) I can see why publishers might shy away from it. But all the mordant humour extracted from her protagonist’s indulgent delusions and artistic crises has a point, and a pertinent one: What does it mean to be a writer or painter in a world where niche-level, D-list celebrity is radically accessible?

As for that “fact or fiction” question, a parlour game without the fun, let me cite Harry Mathews, whose last novel My Life in CIA explored similarly muddy waters: “Henry James once said that the Venetian painter Tintoretto never drew an immoral line. That seems madness, because Tintoretto was squiggling all over the place. I came to the conclusion that what James meant was that the moral responsibility of the artist is to make something real happen, whatever it takes. And for me, that is the moral responsibility of a writer: to make something real happen on the page. Its relation to fact is irrelevant. “

 

6. One word uttered forever

Toronto’s Double Double Land hosts an occasional series called Talking Songs, where lecturers play various pieces of music for the audience before discussing them. Carl’s spoken there before; I have too. At the event’s return a few months ago, one of the performers was York University professor Marcus Boon, who gave a talk called “Chopping and Screwing: From Terry Riley to DJ Screw.” I don’t really remember anything he said. What I do remember is that he finished by playing a single 25-minute-long drone and asking us to listen.

Erik Satie’s avant-garde endurance test Vexations, 34 dissonant chords typically performed 840 times in a row, is often said to have quasi-hallucinogenic effects on audiences. Palpable heat, like the kind inside DDL – it’s perched above a Portuguese bakery – must only intensify that. While Boon’s drone pulsed, time collapsed inwards before stretching out as if it might snap; most eyes stayed shut out of reverence or boredom, but sometimes I cheated and caught others fluttering open, sexy in their languour. After the noise spent itself, Boon very quietly asked how it made us feel. I still don’t know what my answer is.

 

7. The image world: Picture This, by Lynda Barry

Picture This asks the big question on its cover: “Do you wish you could draw?” Barry’s manner is the best Grade 3 teacher any kid/adult could hope for, supportive and pedagogical yet utterly free of condescension, and it comes through in her cartooning. Like Sean Rogers notes, this is an activity book featuring such activities as “collect blue.” Barry argues that we’re encouraged to trace and doodle as children only to be dissauded while we grow up, and her attempts to liberate your inner scribbler echo the open-ended tone of John Cage’s motto: “Get yourself out of whatever cage you find yourself in.”

One of Barry’s strips, “Chicken Attack,” was written by a five-year-old boy named Jack. He was sitting next to her on an airplane. While Mom dozed, he came up with a script: “One morning, the chicken was eaten by a man. The man went to work. His stomach started to feel funny. He went to the port-a-let, and then he went. The chicken came out. The man was surprised. The chicken was also surprised. The chicken ran from the port-a-let to the construction site. They put the chicken in charge, and from then on, the chicken was boss.” Lynda Barry is also pretty boss.

 

8. Continue: Scott Pilgrim’s Finest Hour, by Bryan Lee O’Malley

The movie was fun, partly because its doomed marketing showed Torontonians that our shitty lives could be the basis for a fantastical mythos too. But it wasn’t first to do so, and in other ways I preferred Bryan Lee O’Malley’s print finale. It begins with depressed Scott Pilgrim acting like a skeezy jerk, hitting on his teenage ex: “So…uh…what’s it like to no longer be a child in the eyes of the law?” It gives another ex, Envy Adams (Chaotic Neutral), a costume that says “Legend of Zelda boss as worn by Lady Gaga.” And its unconstrained space allows for many pages where people just sit around and talk.

In that sense, the supporting cast was especially hard done by during the adaptation process; a lot of secondary characters got compressed to a single note or joke where they had originally existed in a broader context, one the self-absorbed hero didn’t always notice. As Mike Barthel wrote, “that sense of outward focus and of ladies existing without reference to dudes (or dudes without reference to ladies, honestly) absolutely vanishes [in the film].” I lament this both as someone who wants more movies to pass the Bechdel Test and as someone who thought Alison Pill was cute, which is probably to say, a confused someone.

Finest Hour‘s luxury of sprawl also benefits the villainous Gideon Graves. (That’s him above. In the movie he’s played by Jason Schwartzman, which is perfect casting if you dislike the public persona of Jason Schwartzman.) Gideon is a disquieting portrait of the smart, arty kid who becomes a grasping and covetous adult. A grimly funny, comics-only detail marks him as the only character in their thirties – indeed, he shares an age with his (happily married!) creator. The evilest ex is emotionally controlling on a megalomaniacal scale: Instead of stalking “the ones who got away” on Facebook, he captures them inside an elaborate machine borrowed from some Final Fantasy boss.

When O’Malley launched the series’ final volume last summer, my life was a bit like a Scott Pilgrim book – the bantering romantic scenes, not the epic battles, though they often bleed into each other. I didn’t strap somebody into a…device so I could siphon their vitality. But there were moments that resembled a flashback in Finest Hour, where the younger, less-evil Gideon watches pixie pugilist Ramona Flowers literally disappear from his life; moments that were one long uncomprehending “Whyyyyyyyy?” (Then, to fizzling teleportation residue: “But I thought it was going so well…”) This was maladroit and thoughtless for various reasons, as I probably would’ve figured out anyway, but the literary synchronicity led to a pre-emptive realization: Why would you ever want to act like a bitter, stunted asshole while blaming it on someone lovely? So call this comic a cautionary tale, as well as a damn entertaining one.

 

9. Torontopia time machine: Wavelength 500

I doubt that I could describe this event any better than Carl already did – or Michael Barclay, for that matter. The 10th anniversary of Toronto’s integral PWYC music series ended with a reunion of the Barcelona Pavilion (who broke up when I was still in high school) and a surprise set by Owen Pallett (who debuted his solo project at a 2004 Wavelength before going all those places). The BP were raucous and baldly conceptual again, even in the ways they scorned misty local eyes; their encore was an iPod singalong as it played Mag & The Suspects’ “Thousands Dead.” Whether or not nostalgia is misplaced, they certainly merited some.

Kids on TV followed, and then Owen, and then the 2003 iteration of the Hidden Cameras briefly swept aside layers of antipathy to play “I Believe in the Good of Life,” along with the half of the crowd that joined them onstage. There’s no visual record of it. (Never mind: Colin Medley popped up in comments to link his video!) I have to give you this clip instead, Owen and Steve Kado teaming up to cover “Independence Is No Solution.” It’s a great song about everything you believe in turning to shit: “Babies want to have publicists / Because better babies make best-of lists.” (No publicists contacted B2TW while we threw these together.) In that room, though, on that night, it felt more like shoving a crowbar in the coffin than a nail.

 

10. Thrash this mess around: Four Corners, at Steelworkers Hall, July 23

The concept for this show was simple enough. Four bands, all of them loud and scuzzy, manned the corners of a large room inside venerable Steelworkers Hall. We were in the centre. When the available light changed to a given colour, we streamed towards that corner for a few songs’ worth of ritual abuse. The beauty was in the details, and not just because the bill included Anagram, one of my favourite local bands.

Wandering through the cavernous Steelworkers Hall, with its tributes to industrial unionism and lefty agit-kitsch, I thought the venue could almost be a museum for older models of independent music. Meanwhile, the spastic colour cycles appropriated the structural logic of video games. But underneath those lurid lights, radical politics no longer seemed anachronistic, and the moshing reminded me that cathartic fake violence has its own history. To echo one of Carl’s entries, it was a new way of living. If you’re the resolution-making type, I hope you find a few of them.

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Mary Margaret O’Hara at Pop Montreal, Oct. 3, 2010

by Carl Wilson

Sometimes people speak of the “physical genius” of an athlete such as Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky or Roger Federer – the way what they do, in the bugged-out eyes of self-consciously-more-mortal players and spectators, can seem beyond not just rational understanding but even instinctive possibility.

Malcolm Gladwell tried to define it as some kind of combination of practice and a certain breed of imagination, and David Foster Wallace more exquisitely wrote about “kinetic beauty” – “It has nothing to do with sex or cultural norms. What it seems to have to do with, really, is human beings’ reconciliation with the fact of having a body.” And there certainly exists a parallel kind of performative genius in artists, which in cases such as Bruce Springsteen or Tina Turner bears a near relationship to that athletic quality, and in others such as Elvis or Prince a closer kinship to the preacher’s or shaman’s power. (And all of them, to contradict the great DFW for a moment, have plenty to do with sex and cultural norms – in fact, they’re a leading cause of both.)

But the most intense experiences of performative genius I’ve had, perhaps because of whatever kinetic handicaps I carry with me, tend to be of a slightly different stripe. I’d like to think that they would be equally universal if as many people could see them. On the other hand, most of the artists who bear this gift seem to become stuck in the “cult” category of the entertainment business, so maybe it’s not so. You might call it psycho-kinetic beauty, or Tourettic beauty: It’s a rendering of the mind-body problem without reconciliation but also without compromise. As if the mind and body were reversing their positions in the usual conflict, such that the body is thinking and the mind is dancing, or the body is writing a sonnet and the mind is having an orgasm.

Either way, it doesn’t exactly look like a person becoming more-than-normal, superhuman; it looks like a person becoming other-than-normal, extrahuman. With apologies to Wallace again, if any mode of human activity almost escapes sex and cultural norms, this would be my pick. Although that’s also what’s sexy about it.

David Thomas of the band Pere Ubu ranting and screeching; Ornette Coleman, his saxophone twittering not in musical notes but in the tongues of beasts; the Dutch band The Ex turning themselves into a collective star cluster or the bumps of a spine twisting in epileptic convulsion; Shane McGowan of the Pogues, his body wrecked, propped up against the mic stand like a sail hung on a mast or a patient on an IV stand, yet singing with the power of Prospero summoning a monsoon. Wherever it arises, when you’re in the room with it, you are very likely to feel that you are seeing the best performance that ever happened in the world.

As Wallace says of Federer, this quality doesn’t quite survive transmission or recording by other media; finding out why not, whether by science or phenomenology, would make a good dissertation (title it “The Federer Paradox”).

The answer may have something to do with the career path of Mary Margaret O’Hara, who was introduced almost rudely not long ago by CBC radio host Jian Ghomeshi as someone who is perhaps less famous for what she’s achieved (primarily, the 1988 album Miss America, which regularly appears on lists of the best pop records ever made) than for what she hasn’t (mainly, getting famous, or making any more albums since then).

It obviously has to do as well with the music industry’s discomfort with her sort of unclassifiable gift, with Canada on a bunch of levels (as experienced from within, as perceived from outside) and with her own eccentricities: Until this week, partly due to missed chances but mainly because chances are scarce, I’d never seen her give a full-length concert. Only cameo appearances at other people’s shows, where she’d sometimes be stunning and other times stunned — seeming as if she was totally unprepared, hesitant to join in, derailed by the whole situation. On occasion she barely sings at all.

It might be, as my friend Michael likes to think, that she sizes up the situation rapidly and thinks, “There’s no music going on here, nothing for me to do.” It might be modesty and spectacular shyness. Or maybe she is just prone to confusion.

Even then, Michael might be kind of right: At her show in Montreal last weekend, the kind of unexpected treat-out-of-pop-legend-history that’s one of the Pop Montreal festival’s specialties, you could see that she’s less tuned out than overly tuned in. She would notice someone dropping their phone halfway back the hall. She would catch a word in the middle of her own sentence – whether singing or speaking – and start free-associating hilariously on it.

She would seem to notice a half-hoarse intonation in a note she’d sung and jump on it, twisting it into an actual horse braying and snorting, then seamlessly return to the groove or the melody she’d been teasing around the stage a moment before. Remember that her sister Catherine O’Hara is part of (one or two of) the past few decades’ most important clutch of improvisational comedians. This is that, as music.

And as comedy too. The hardest part of writing this is to explain how funny Mary Margaret is. Telling us we were a great audience, she mumbled, “You’re all so nice, you should be treated like baby seals.” (Petted? Clubbed? Eaten?) When there was a call-and-response bit on a chorus, and the audience, uncoached, failed to come in the very first time, she immediately sneered, “Losers.” You maybe just chuckled now. We gasped, we literally fell off of our plush little cabaret chairs. It was the mass and velocity of the gesture and verbiage that was coming at us, like tennis balls being fired by some out-of-control pitching machine, that was overwhelming.

It all happened by micro-instants. It was like Koyaanisqatsi or some other stop-motion photographic film, compared to the linear, zoom-in emotional arc of most performances. It was everywhere if it was anywhere. As Michael said, as soon as you can guess where she’s going, then she goes somewhere else. She was throwing away ideas and emotions as quickly as she generated them, and while it could read as careless it was actually rigorous: Why keep them? They’re already done!

But then she would freeze the strobe and simply sing the heaven out of some ballad, like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” or her own “Dear Darling,” in a way that made you reflexively think “Billie Holiday,” not because O’Hara’s voice sounds similarly but because you thought this must have been what it would like to be in some 1940s club hearing Holiday interpret every syllable and note with such extreme musicality, humanity and particularity. At times, with her tendency to reticence, O’Hara would call up a guest, and then ask them later to come up again, and they’d call out from the crowd, “Mary, I think people want to hear you sing.” We were always so grateful.

Aside from Miss America tracks and the few covers I knew, I couldn’t tell which songs were her own (and her collaborators’, guitarist Rusty McCarthy chief among them for more than three decades), because she’s in the league of the standards composers as a maker of melodies and lyrics. That element’s often downplayed when Miss America gets praised, just because her voice is so conspicuously out-of-ballpark. Let’s do hope, in defiance of all sense and reason, that these new ones make it to another record.

It was all like an inside-out version of how you feel reading a great novelist, the kind – Dostoevsky, Robert Musil – who implicitly tell you that laughter and weeping are one and the same because, as Andre Breton said, “Beauty will be convulsive if it is at all.” It makes nonsense of their separations into genres or even into “beats” in a drama – scenes are “light” and then “get dark.” The body knows in its spasms that light and dark are part of one thing, the flicker of reality.

There were calls toward the end, at the encore, for one of her best-known songs, “Body’s in Trouble.” She shrugged them off for her own reasons, but it is her manifesto, with its caressing but also battering rhythms and textures: not the reconciliation to having a body but the realization that the body’s will, its wisdom, its stubborn it-ness, means that “having” a body is not at all the right description – it has you, and that’s its problem.

Oh you just want to take somebody
Your body won’t let you
You just want to, want to hear somebody
And a body won’t let you
You just want to ride somebody
Oh a body won’t let you
Who do you talk who, who do you talk to?
Who do you talk to? Who?
When a body’s in trouble, a body’s in trouble
When a body’s in trouble, in trouble, in trouble
When a body’s in a trouble
Oh, when a body’s in trouble
Who who who do you talk to?
Oh who oh who oh

Some moments of Mary Margaret O’Hara – but remember Federer’s Paradox about reproducing kinetic beauty, much less the psycho-kinetic kind.

An early appearance with her first band, Songship – must be circa 1980? The host describes her, awkwardly but tellingly, as a “combination of a sex symbol and Howdy Doody.”

Classic performance of “When You Know Why You’re Happy” on Night Music, early 1980s.

The Body’s In Trouble video

A newer song

In 2007 at the Edmonton Folk Festival

At her annual Martian Awareness Ball (for St. Patrick’s Day) in Toronto

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