Dedicated to classics and hits.

Friday, November 07, 2014

The Apes of God (1930) by Wyndham Lewis

Wyndham Lewis, author of The Apes of God.

Book Review
The Apes of God (1930)
by Wyndham Lewis
Black Sparrow Press Edition, 1981
639 Pages

 If you are looking for a 600 page satire on the English Artist class in the 1920s, The Apes of God by Wyndham Lewis is for you.  Most of the characters are based on real people, artists and socialites.  The story, such as it is, concerns young Daniel Boleyn, a would-be artist, and his mentor, the mischievous albino Horace Zagreus.  Zagreus promises to guide him through the world of the Apes of God, who are basically wealthy dilettantes who think themselves artsy.  There isn't much difference between Lewis' Apes and the "Hipsters" of today, both are stereotypes with some truth in them.

 It's hard not to read Apes of God as being anything other than homophobic, Lewis' obsession with the relationship between homosexuality and his Apes of God is impossible to ignore if you know, actually read the book. His depiction of homosexuality is not flattering, and again, it kinda reads as being super homophobic.  That's my guess why this particular volume doesn't appear on many college Modern Literature classes- it's certainly not a theme that he explores in his earlier work, and I was left wondering how the afterword in the Black Sparrow Press edition barely mentions it.  Maybe because the afterword was written in 1981, when it was totally ok to be a homophobe.

 I'm not normally one to get wound up by non-PC artistic themes, the combination of the extreme length, lack of incident, prevalence of dialogue and general incomprehensibility, it is hard to get over.


Thursday, November 06, 2014

Rockabilly as a Model for the Growth of a Subculture

1957 Elvis liked Pink.

Rockabilly as a Model for the Growth of a Subculture

Book Review
Rockabilly The Twang Heard 'Round the World
The Illustrated History
with Greil Marcus, Peter Guralnick, Luc Sante, Robert Gordon and foreword by Sonny Burgess
Michael Dregni, editor
Voyageur Press
p. 2011

   I was largely ignorant about rockabilly outside Stray Cats, Brian Setzer's subsequent solo career and the odd friend who liked the Cramps until 2011, when Dirty Beaches Badlands came out.  The three most descriptive terms applied to that record were:

1) Rockabilly
2) Elvis
3) Suicide
4) Cramps
Gene Vincent wearing leather and performing.

  Three of those four descriptive terms were Rockabilly derived.  Describing something as "Rockabilly Elvis" is the same thing as saying "Early Elvis."  The Cramps are a revivalist manifestation of the original Rockabilly culture.  Thus, conscious or not, people seemed to think that the Dirty Beaches Badlands LP was some kind of rockabilly inspired work.   Whether the description is accurate or not, it is what the audience was thinking about while listening.
This famous photograph of Elvis performing has Buddy Holly in the Audience.  Taken on June 3rd, 1955

  That episode didn't trigger any kind of active interest in rockabilly.  Within the last year, a trip to Nashville and the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum and the opportunity to watch Wanda Jackson perform at the Stagecoach Festival have led to moments of Rockabilly inspired contemplation.  Finally, Dirty Beaches ending its run as a "band" have led me to review the history of the project, and of course to focus on the time surrounding Badlands as being both crucial to the break up itself and the fact that anyone at all cares about the break up.

  This was the route that led me to: Rockabilly The Twang Heard 'Round the World
The Illustrated History.  This volume is a 200 page picture book, with text from multiple contributing authors.  Most of the space is devoted to either interviews with surviving (or recently deceased) artists from the original period, or thematic essays on important subject.  The key point to emphasis about this volume is how CRITICAL photographs are for obtaining any thorough understanding of the rockabilly era. You need to be able to see records, record art, show posters, etc if you want to really get what was going on.

  Rockabilly The Twang Heard 'Round the World is very precise about the historical facts of rockabilly, and sports its assertions with photographs, interviews and footnotes.  The original period of rockabilly started with the first Elvis record and ended by 1960, though the precise end point is a matter of dispute.   The time period of the original Rockabilly subculture was: 1950ish-1956: precursor events/beginning 1956-1958: heyday 1959-1960: end.

   Between 1956-1958, Elvis rose to fame, but perhaps more importantly, "package tours" of rockabilly artists toured coast to coast, and not simply major markets. Although the roots of rockabilly seemingly lay in Memphis because of the confluence of Elvis and Sun Studios, the active area includes West Texas and New Mexico.  The origins of rockabilly are inseparable from the origins of Elvis Presley, and his early records and shows are the fountainhead for all subsequent rockabilly culture.

   Elvis was of course the son of poorish whites from Tupelo Mississippi, but the music that brought him to attention was unarguably "black" sounding.  Multiple people interviewed about their involvement with early Elvis and commercial radio in the South explicitly say that they would always introduce him by saying what High School (a segregated, whites-only high school) he attended so that his audience would "know" that he was white.

  In fact, race seems to be a critical determinant in separating Rockabilly culture from the larger culture of Rhythm and Blues and rock and roll.  I did not see a single black face in this book, which is a book of photographs, and there was not a single black artist profiled among dozens.  Since so much of the growth of rockabilly culture was the direct result of the success of Elvis Presley with a large audience, it's impossible to "blame" anyone, but it just happened that the Audience for rockabilly and the culture it inspired was 100% white, and it stayed that way until Japanese fans created their own revival twenty years later.

  The second aspect of rockabilly culture that requires emphasis is the style being equally or more important than the music.  If you were to look at subsequent rockabilly revivals, it would be clear that the fascination with rockabilly costume plays a greater role for revivalists than does the accompanying music.  The great majority of this costume was either directly modeled on the wardrobes of Elvis Presley or Gene Vincent (the motorcycle jacket look) and worn by fans of those artists, often at their concerts or events where there music was played by disc jockeys.

  In the example of rockabilly, sub-cultural growth is tied to a very narrow range of conditions and events: the growth of audience for a few musicians and the efforts of their fans to increase their emotional involvement in the career of that artist.   The book makes clear that after the initial break through by Elvis, stake holder in the music industry rushed to find their own versions of Elvis.  It was this effort that dominated 1957 and 1958, and Rockabilly the Twang 'Heard Round the World makes this process abundantly clear by profiling dozens of Artists.  These records were not produced and distributed by rockabilly specific labels, rather they were added to the rosters of existing independent labels who were making a living selling other genres of music.

  This growth in the number of "rockabilly" artists dovetailed with the market for "package tours" in smaller markets all over the United States, and gave these secondary Artists a chance to tour (and extend the hey day of the rockabilly period.)  The "end" of the classic period can be identified a number of ways- Elvis "leaving the building" for pop music, the death of Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper in a place crash or through changes in the underlying conditions: Diminished audience interest, co-option by larger industry players and subsequent dilution of the underlying culture, incorporation of the most interesting elements by musicians outside the rockabilly sphere.

  At the end of the classic period for rockabilly, again the racial nature of the culture stands out, with essentially no rockabilly artists migrating to Rock and Roll, but many returning to the fold of Country and Bluegrass.  The conclusion that subcultural growth is more narrowly tied to specific Artists and even more specific economic conditions is inescapable.  The desire for critics to venture further afield seems typically to be a mistake concerning the influences on a specific Artist (What inspired Elvis) with the influence of an Artist on his Audience (What Elvis inspired.)

 Elvis' fans did not necessarily know or care what he "stole" from black music, they just knew they were fans of Elvis.  Trying to attribute some racist impulse to his fans his ridiculous, but documenting the overwhelming white Artist and Audiences of classic rockabilly seems impossible to avoid.

The Making of the Middle Sea by Cyprian Broodbank

The Bronze Age civilizations of the Mediterranean.

The Making of the Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World
 by Cyprian Broodbank
Published November 1st, 2013
Oxford University Press
673 pages
387 illustrations, 49 in color
4.9 pounds
These bronze age ruins on Malta are the kind of sites that Cyprian Broodbank tries to illuminate in The Making of the Middle Sea.
     The Making of the Middle Sea is bulky enough to evoke raised eyebrows if you attempt to read it in public. The Making of the Middle Sea is heavy enough so that if you attempt to read it lying down, it will eventually hurt your stomach simply by virtue of its weight.  The Making of the Middle Sea is 673 pages long, but 70 of those pages are footnotes and a bibliography, and perhaps 300 pages worth of text contain photographs, maps, diagrams and illustrations, so when all is said in done, The Making of the Middle Sea by Cyprian Broodbank ends up being a manageable 300 page read.  As Broodbank himself acknolwedges in his introduction, it has indeed been a generation since Fernand Braudel (1902-1985) wrote The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II in 1949.
This bronze figure from Sardinia is an example of an indigenous mythology.

    Braudel's opus was the first book to write a history of an area, rather than a nation, people or personage, and his method was coined the Annales school, which can be loosely described as both a bottom/up historical technique, with greater attention paid to the lives of average people than rulers AND as an integrative technique where knowledge from other social science disciplines: notably archeology and climatology, were broad in to shed light on previously little known places and times.

   Braudel set off the equivalent of an enormous earthquake with his history of the Mediterranean and subsequent five volume history of private life, but he was limited in what he could draw from other disciplines, which were themselves limited by two World Wars and various discipline specific methodological issues.  Broodbank, an archaeologist by training, confidently presents The Making of the Middle Sea as an up to date successor to The Mediterranean, and he has in his favor more than a half century of advances in archeology, climate studies, genetics, carbon dating to assist him in fulfilling his broad promise of presenting, "A History of the Mediterranean from the Beginning to the Emergence of the Classical World."

   Broodbank proceeds in chronological order, literally starting before the Mediterranean existed to the initial population of the the entire basin by Modern humans.  Within each chapter he moves in a loosely clockwise fashion, usually starting in North Africa, which has the least amount of available information, then the Iberian peninsula, the Balearics and southern France, Italy, the Balkans, Greece, the Middle East and Egypt.  In the opening couple chapters, these areas really do function separate and independently, and one of the major narrative themes of The Making of the Middle Sea is the process by which the various discrete regions expanded and integrated, leading up to the "explosion" of the Greek/Roman era.

   Another major narrative theme is an attempt to shed light on the pre-Classical indigenous populations of Iberia, Sardinia and the super-islands of Crete and Cyprus.  The conventional narrative for describing the pre-Classical history of the Mediterranean is a movement of civilization from East (Mesopotamia and Egypt via the Levant and Anatolia) to West (Greece,) and Broodbank does everything to can to show- often literally- with photographs of little known ruin sites in places like modern day Spain, Malta and Sardinia to argue that the central and western Mediterranean were advanced as anything in the early and middle parts of the second millenium BC, they just weren't hooked up with the "winning" civilizations.

  In several places Broodbank makes comparisons between these pre-Classical indigenous Mediterranean groups and the Native American civilizations of the Maya, Aztec and Incans, and the idea of analogizing the relationship between the Western and Eastern Mediterranean to the relationship between the discoverers of the New World and the Natives has some appeal.

  Another important narrative theme in The Making of the Middle Sea is the integration of climate sciences.  In several places he is able to authoritatively answer specific questions about the historical climate of certain areas by referring to pollen cores pulled out of lake bottoms, which accurately record the type of plants present during each time period. For me, the takeaway from the climate science material is that whether human activity causes climate change or not, climate change happens, and humans are often dramatically and for the worse.  The way I see it, as long as we can agree that climate change is actually happening, the cause don't matter, because the effect will be the same whether the change is from a long term "super drought," a cooling of the atmosphere, a warming of the atmosphere, ec.

  The visuals of The Making of the Middle Sea are also worth singling out for acclaim.  Maps are sufficently large to be readable and contain the right amount of information.  Photographs are up to date and make use of everything available.  Diagrams and drawings are likewise excellent, and draw uniformly from recent sources.

   The Making of the Middle Sea is not perfect, and generally lags anywhere there is an established field of interest: Egypt, Mesopotamia are mere summaries of up to date but hardly revelatory material.  His marshalling of archeological work in the service of Annales style bottom-up history is admirable, and it may be this technique that is just as notable as the updating of Braudel's epic history from a half century ago.

  The bibliography is remarkable, 40 pages of four point script with something like 35 abbreviated periodicals and presses that show up multiple times.  You can make the argument that anyone interested in this period of history should own The Making of the Middle Sea just for the bibliography, which must contain enough recent academic examples to fuel a years worth of JSTOR based research.  The Making of the Middle Sea does succeed in the stated attempt to provide a new Braudel like work.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Show Review: Queens of The Stone Age & The Kills @ The Forum in Los Angeles, CA.

Handsome Josh Homme from Queens of the Stone Age, Last.Fm's 72nd biggest act in the world.

Show Review:
Queens of The Stone Age & The Kills
@ The Forum in Los Angeles, CA.
Halloween 2014

Three reasons I went to this show:  Halloween is a holy nightmare of a night to go out, Free, The Forum, storied home of the Los Angeles Lakers, has been refurbished and is hosting shows.  It has about 13,000 capacity, the lower tier is general admission, and then the "arena" seats are refurbished and PLUSH AS FUCK.

First the venue, because I'd talked to someone who attended the re-opening Eagles concerts earlier this year (late last year?) and I've been wanting to go to check it out.  The Forum hosted the Lakers and the Kings between 1967 and 1988, and then I think it's been kinda semi closed for the last several years before the Eagles played there.  The Forum, also known as The Great Western Forum for a period, is located in scenic South Central Los Angeles.  Let me make it clear I see this location as a plus, like going to see a show in a vintage Ice Cube LP record.  Originally the forum was The Inglewood Forum, which is name checked (Inglewood) approximately every other  ten seconds in most LA rap in the 80s and 90s.  I got there by driving down Manchester, past several awesome looking Louisiana/Southern Fried Chicken restaurants and at least two substantial street taco operations cooking full blast coming and going.

I will say, the parking was not cheap (25 USD) and don't enter off of Manchester if you are smart. The Forum Club, which I believe has also been refurbished, was amazing, with a wide selection of free food and beer and mixed drinks for "arena" price levels (9 usd beer, 12 usd and up for mixed drinks.)  The food in the Forum Club included turkey and beef sliders, a cheese steak "stand", fresh fruit, ice cream sundae bar, etc, etc, etc.  It wasn't particularly amazing, just that it existed AT ALL. Arena shows are usually so nightmarish and this was civilized.  I can't speak for the general admission area, but I highly recommend the seated portion.

Openers The Kills were the reason I had free tickets, and I thought they were great.  Their usual two piece line up was supplemented with four Druid-drummers.   I was postively enraptured by Alison Mossheart's stage presence- she has really credible arena rock level moves.  I think they are at the point of getting ready to demo their next record, which they should put out next year if you ask me!

Queens of the Stone Age was wrapping up a nearly two year promotional cycle built around their May 31st, 2013 LP release ...Like Clockwork.  "Queens" or QOTSA (pronounced "Quote saw") as I like to call them, is currently the #72 biggest artist on the site.   I've seen them at least three times in the last two years, including seeing them headline the San Diego Sports Arena last December, so, it was similar. The singer for Scissor Sisters joined them for the first song, and he actually added a good deal to the cut.  The crowd was diverse and enthusiastic, with many costumes and a ton of dedicated fans singing and dancing along to each and every song.  There should be no doubt that Queens of the Stone Age are a top 10 rock act in the United States, and top 20 in the world.

  If you are going to a show at The Forum in Inglewood, enter from a side street, buy seats and try to get access to the Forum club if your can.  Worth it.

Makers of Modern Asia (2014) Edited by Ramachandra Guha

Photograph of Indira Gandhi as a young girl.  Like many other Makers of Modern Asia, she was educated in the UK, though she did not complete her university degree.

Makers of Modern Asia
Edited by  Ramachandra Guha
Published August 29th, 2014
Belknap Press of Harvard University
Photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru.  Although he has been hugely eclipsed in the west by the canonization of Gandhi, Nehru played a significant role in shaping modern India, guiding it through the rocky first years after independence. 

  Biography dominates the field of popular history- pick any three top sellers off the non-fiction list that can be categorized as "history" and all three are likely to be biographies, likely of American Presidents or Jesus.  This despite the fact that biography has very much fallen out of favor in academic circles concerned with historical matters.  Perhaps because of this disparity between popular tastes and academic tastes, there are often gaps in newer areas of historical inquiry when it comes newly popular historical subjects, and 20th century Asian history- one of THE hottest topics in World History, is no exception.

Photograph of Zulifkar/Zuliqar Ali Bhutto.  One of the revelations of Makers of Modern Asia is that Ali Bhutto was educated at USC and UC Berkeley. 
 Thank god, Makers of Modern Asia is here to rectify the lack of short, well written, biographical sketches of 20th century Asian leaders with its presence.  Published at the end of August by the excellent Belknap Press at Harvard University, Makers of Modern Asia has biographical sketches of 11 twentieth century Asian leaders:   Gandhi (India), Chiang Kai-shek(China), Ho Chi Minh(Vietnam), Mao Zedong(China), Jawaharlal Nehru(India), Zhou Enlai(China), Sukarno(Indonesia), Deng Xiaoping(China), Indira Gandhi(India), Lee Kuan Yew(Singapore) and Zulifkar Ali Bhutto(Pakistan).
Like Deng Xiaoping, Zhang Enlai, pictured here as a young man, rode the post-revolutionary Mao roller coaster, with spells in and out of power, but he emerges as a fascinating, first rate historical figure in the Makers of Modern Asia.

     Like all of the other titles I've read published by Belknap/Harvard University, Makers of Modern Asia is designed to satisfy both scholars of the field (ample footnotes and indexing) and general readers with a vague interest in learning more about the big leaders of 20th century Asian history. The amount of time one saves vs. reading individual biographies of some or all of these leaders is monumental- Makers of Modern Asia packs into 300 pages the important facts concerning all 11 leaders, and despite featuring 11 different authors, manages to keep an even tone throughout.

  All of the biographical sketches contain positives and negatives and appear to be written by actual people from those countries judging by the sensitivities displayed. The very idea of Westerners writing Asian history is clearly controversial even in more Western friendly places like India, witness the brou-ha-ha over Wendy Doinger's book, The Hindus, as recently as last year.  It is impossible not to look for commonalities between the leaders as a way to link the sketches together, and the clear common denominator appears to be educational experiences abroad, either in Japan, Paris, Russia, London or Berkeley(Bhutto.)

  The great irony that the West by and large educated the leaders who would lead the struggle against Western Imperialism is something the reader will have ample time to contemplate within the pages of Makers of Modern Asia.  I'm assuming that most readers, like myself, will possess general knowledge about Mao and Gandhi, and maybe recognize the names of leaders like Indira Gandhi, Deng Xiaoping, Lee Kuan Yew and draw blanks on the others.  For me, it was the lesser known leaders who proved the most revelatory.

  How often do you have the opportunity to contemplate the back story of Sukharno, the Indonesian leader who helmed the fourth largest country in the world with a relative lack of extravagant human misery.  All of those profiled "come alive" in the pages of Makers of Modern Asia.  Any reader looking for a jumping off point into the sea of recent Asian history would be well advised to start here rather than a nation/country specific/focused titles.  So much of 20th century Asian nation-state history was directly influenced by these personalities that neglecting them in favor of more esoteric theories about roots and causes seems a bit, as they in England, potty.

  I do strongly recommend picking this title up if you have an interest in the subject, or in not being an ignorant American the next time you are asked to opine on some Asia centered current event.

Monday, November 03, 2014

Dirty Beaches Issues Final Record, Stateless

This image of Alex appeared during the Badlands promo cycle, and it was this image that he has sought to escape ever since.


 One of the things I've learned in the last decade is not to overplay a winning hand.  Put another way, don't talk past the sale. There is nothing wrong with resting on your laurels, playing out the string, and generally preserving ones reputation via inactivity or a relative absence of new activity. Ambition, for those who have already achieved some level of self sustaining success, is not a flattering characteristic and if you find yourself in the position of having achieved some kind of stable, viable success in any field that does not require additional activity, you should appreciate it, and not feel compelled to pursue further success.

  When Dirty Beaches Badlands was released in April of 2011, I had already thought that it would be the high point of my involvement with Zoo Music.   I knew from my familiarity with the history of independent music in the United States that repeat success was essentially reserved for repeat players, and that bedroom indies had a close to half century record in this country of shining briefly and then fading away quickly. I wasn't necessarily interested in acknowledging that fact in 2011, and I certainly didn't want to rest on Badlands, but as time passed, it became clear that Badlands was likely to be the main legacy from my involvement with Zoo Music, whether it lasted another year or another decade.

  In 2013, Dirty Beaches released Drifters/Love is the Devil, an unlikely second act to Badlands, that both sold better and received more critical respect, with many removing the "out of nowhere" type language that they applied to Badlands, and obtaining a deeper understanding of Badlands within the long output of Dirty Beaches prior to Badlands.  Fame and acclaim aside, neither record was the kind of financial life changer that I believe people imagine when they think about what the impact "must have been" on artist and label.  Money was made, checks were cashed, royalties were paid, but nothing changed in my life.  For Alex, of course, it was different, and he was forced to confront many new fans who he essentially despised.  It is a common fate for serious artists who experience popular success, and by no means limited to Alex and his experience.

  This new found popularity and the absence of remuneration commensurate with the toll the new fans took on his artistic identity led to the end of Dirty Beaches.  Despite the disclosure of this information via a social media platform, the decision was not something made in a rush or under the influence of drugs or alcohol.  Prior to the announcement I had already been told that Dirty Beaches was to go on indefinite hiatus.

 I knew that because of a sequence of events a few months ago where I made the decision to leave Zoo Music, and accepted the offer to start a new label with Alex.  I don't think it is my place either to detail my decision to leave Zoo Music, or discuss Alex's new label.  I'd rather leave the former unsaid (but add that there are no hard feelings, and that money played no part in the decision, and that the decision was mutual, and that Zoo Music will continue without me.)   As for the later, it's not my place to say.  I'm sure Alex will discuss it when he is ready.

  But I do want to assure his fans that Alex is going to continue to make music, and my readers that despite leaving Zoo Music I will continue to be involved in distributing Alex's future projects.  I am grateful for my time at Zoo Music, and for all the experiences that I had, and for my partners in the project, Brandon and Dee Dee.  They retain Zoo Music, and I'm excited to see their next chapter as well.

  One final thing I've learned, not just from music, but also from my personal life, is that you have to be ready to pull the plug on relationships and move on, even if it causes short term pain and emotional distress. Sticking a thing out to the bitter end may in some places be considered a positive character attribute, but from my experience, stubbornness and an unwillingness to admit that a particular thing has run its course only leads to deferred unhappiness.

  This is not to say that one should be hesitant to form relationships and try new things- quite the opposite- the purpose of ending something that no longer works is not to withdraw, but to open up the space and energy to try a new thing, label, relationship, partnership, business venture, whatever.  That's WHY you go through the pain and difficulty of ending something, or agreeing to end something.

  If it turns out (as well might be the case) that the only lasting impact of my involvement in popular music is the Badlands/Drifters/Love is the Devil/Stateless album cycle released on Zoo Music between 2011 and 2014, so be it.  Many independent labels exist for much longer periods of time then my participation in Zoo Music and never have a single record that makes as much of an impact.  I feel lucky for having been given an opportunity to participate in Zoo Music by Brandon and Dee Dee, and I wish them the best of luck with their label in the future.

Her Privates We (1930) by Frederic Manning

World War I: Life in the trenches.

Book Review
Her Privates We (1930)
 by Frederic Manning

  Yet another book in the 1001 Books project focusing on the experience of soldiers on the front lines of World War I.  I've now read novels about World War I written by English, Australians, Americans, French, Germans and Czech.  If I had to summarize the themes of the literature of World War I based on these books, I would say the following:

  The experience of German soldiers in the West was bad, the experience of English/French/American soldiers wasn't great but wasn't as bad as people seem to think it was, the Western front was much worse than fighting in the East and South, the soldiers were pretty much willing participants whose initial enthusiasm was dampened by the unexpectedly harsh conditions. Even soldiers who were not injured or killed suffered mental/psychic injuries that society was ill equipped to treat.  People who experienced the war were generally more cynical than they were prior to the war.

   Mannen occupies the niche of "semi-scandalous thinly veiled account of a gentleman who enlisted with the regular army."  In the English language World War I literature, the perspective is overwhelmingly that of the educated officer.  Thus, Her Privates We was originally published anonymously, under a different title.  To a modern reader, there is nothing scandalous beyond what you would see in an episode of M*A*S*H on television, but I can see where it would have stood out as being an especially bawdy description of the fighting experience.

  There isn't much action in Her Privates We, but the idea of this book as a "war novel about nothing, where nothing much happens" is very much part of the enduring appeal- it's more of a general war novel than other books written about World War I. 

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