Evan Birnholz’s crossword solution from October 30, “Alternative Rock”

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Before I get to this week’s meta-puzzle, I should mention that last weekend’s puzzle had an error in one of the clues. The HOMER answer had the clue [Fictional graduate of Springfield High School during the 1970s], but a reader alerted me that in the 1993 episode “The Front”, Homer finds out that he technically never graduated from high school because he failed 1A remedial science. He then takes the class back to the present day so he can officially graduate, saying the classic line “Okay, brain, you don’t like me and I don’t like you, but just let’s do this and I can go back to killing you with beer” before taking the final test.

It might not be the worst mistake one could make, but it was still infuriating to me as a fan of “The Simpsons”. I had seen this episode several times back then, but I must have forgotten that detail about why Homer took the course. So, sorry for this slip-up. I updated the index to [Fictional attendee of Springfield High School during the 1970s] for the online version.

The meta-puzzle instructions say we’re looking for “the two-word rock band playing at this puzzle’s concert.” You will immediately notice the seven obvious thematic responses; these are the clues to fill in on people requesting that the mysterious band play songs related to their Halloween costumes.

  • 23A: [The band started taking requests. A fan dressed as a psychic requested “___” …] is “A VISION.”
  • 25A: [… a marathoner requested “___” …] is “THE DISTANCE.”
  • 45A: [… an astronaut requested “___” …] is “MAN ON THE MOON.”
  • 66A: [… a witch requested “___” …] is “JUST GOT NASTY.”
  • 92A: [… a private eye requested “___” …] is “CRACK THE CASE.”
  • 112A: [… an inmate requested “___” …] is “MY OWN JAIL.”
  • 115A: [… and a beauty pageant contestant requested “___.”] is “MISS WORLD.”

There is also a key clue in the lower right corner at 124A: [Then the lead singer said, “Wait, what are the ___ of the bands that did these songs? It would help to know.”] Which one is NAMES. This information was left out of the clues, so let’s look for them.

  • “ONE VISION” is by Queen.
  • “THE DISTANCE” is from Cake.
  • “MAN ON THE MOON” is by REM
  • “JUST GOT WICKED” is by Cold.
  • “CRACK THE CASE” is by Dawes.
  • “MY OWN PRISON” is by Creed.
  • “MISS WORLD” is from Hole.

Now what? Listing song titles or band names in order doesn’t seem to spell much. But take a look around the grid and think about the title of the puzzle, and you can lock onto the key meta stage: each group name hides in the grid with an altered letter.

  • 14A: [Delmer ___, director of the 1957 western “3:10 to Yuma”] is ADVESa letter from DAOES.
  • 27A: [Horned beast] is RAMa letter of REM
  • 53A: [“Alien” actor Ian] is HOLIDAYSMa letter from HOLE.
  • 54A: [Part of a Darth Vader costume] is CaliforniaPEa CA letterKE.
  • 89A: [Reacted to being frightened, maybe] is CRIOFa letter of CREED.
  • 101A: [Non-heteronormative] is QUEERa letter from QUEENOT.
  • 105D: [Oct. 31, 1954 performer on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Nat King ___] is COLLAREa letter from COLD.

Modified letters in grid order spell VAMPIREand the original letters of the group names in the squares spell out WEEKENDwhich leads to the meta-answer VAMPIRE WEEKEND.

My wife and I arrived at see Vampire Weekend play in Philadelphia in September 2019 after a blistering series of rock concerts. We must have gone to four or five different shows in 30 days back then. It was especially lucky that we got to see all of those shows because none of us could have foreseen a pandemic that would end all rock concerts just six months later.

But anyway, if you haven’t heard of Vampire Weekend, maybe listen to some of their best-known songs like “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma.” The original idea was to actually title the puzzle “Cover Band” and allude to two different eight-letter bands, DAFT PUNK and SLIPKNOT, both famous for wearing masks during their shows. But what could be more of a Halloween weekend than the name Vampire Weekend? The trick then was to find one-word bands that a) change their letters WEEKEND to VAMPIRE and get another valid word, b) have song titles that could be clearly tied to a specific costume, and c) have song titles unique enough that you could google them and be reasonably sure you’d found the right bands.

As a bonus, I was aiming to create a grid so that you get valid words when using the letters VAMPIRE or WEEKEND. For example, 16D: [Windblown rooftop device] is WEATHERCOCKand changing the DAVES cross to DAOES gives you ODONKEY. 2D: [Tess’s daughter in “Freaky Friday” (2003)] is ANNEand changing the RAM from 27A to R.E.M. gives you ANNE in 2D instead.

I have to admit, though, there was a flaw with the meta that I didn’t understand until I built the puzzle. The COLE response works for two of these group names, COLD (the good one) and HOLE. When constructing the grid, I had been careful to avoid words that were one letter from REM in addition to RAM such as REN, RIM, HEM, DEM, REP, RED, RUM, etc. It would be really easy for one of those three-letter red herrings to sneak up on you and unwittingly throw you off balance.

But for some reason I missed the fact that COLE is also an inadvertent red herring, and if you matched this answer with HOLE, you might end up with a string of gibberish for your final answer. I hope this issue only slows you down temporarily, because you need both COLE and HOLM to understand the meta, and HOLM is unambiguous as to what group it’s referring to. This problem freaked me out when I first noticed it, which I guess is appropriate for a Halloween puzzle.

Finally, it’s the season, so I’ve given many hints a Halloween vibe:

  • 9A: [Aces and eights, in a dead man’s hand] is PAIRS.
  • 35A: [Like werewolves’ teeth] is SHARP.
  • 38A: [“To Kill a Clown” actor Alan] is ALDA.
  • 41A: [Masking ___ (stuff for making mummy dummies)] is RIBBON.
  • 52A: [Snack on Halloween candy, say] is TO EAT.
  • 53A: [“Alien” actor Ian] is HOLM.
  • 54A: [Part of a Darth Vader costume] is CAP.
  • 55A: [___-devil] is SHE.
  • 57A: [Media org. that shares “Spooked” podcast episodes on its website] is NPR.
  • 64A: [“Deep Blue Sea” terrors] is THE SHARKS.
  • 72A: [Pumpkin-flavored drinks, at times is ALES.
  • 73A: [Pronoun for most of the characters in the 2022 horror film “Men”] is HIM. I saw this film at the cinema. It’s…weird.
  • 74A: [Mythical horned being] is WILDLIFE.
  • 78A: [Part of a hedge maze] is SHRUB. I associate hedge mazes with Halloween because of “The Shining”.
  • 80A: [Ghost Detector Radar Camera on one’s phone, e.g.] is APPLICATION.
  • 82A: [Noise in a dark forest] is HOOT.
  • 89A: [Reacted to being frightened, maybe] is CRY.
  • 95A: [___ Hard (Manic Panic hair-coloring gel)] is DYE.
  • 96A: [Slimy creature] is SLUG.
  • 99A: [“The Mummy” insect] is BEETLE.
  • 104A: [Zombie fun runs, e.g.] is RACES. These are real things.
  • 7D: [___ Island (setting of John Updike’s novel “The Witches of Eastwick”)] is RHODE.
  • 32D: [“Resident Evil,” e.g.] is GAME.
  • 35D: [Potions professor played by Alan Rickman] is ROGUE.
  • 37D: [Giant insect in the monster film “Them!”] is ANT.
  • 39D: [Put on, as a costume] is THREAD.
  • 42D: [Horror film reaction] is SHOCK.
  • 43D: [Hits, as with eggs] is SKINS.
  • 44D: [Body parts that first emerge from graves, in zombie tropes] is ARMS.
  • 55D: [Like spiders’ webs] is TURNED.
  • 56D: [“Boo” partner] is WHISTLING.
  • 67D: [Chainsaw fuel] is GAS.
  • 71D: [Like furry pets wearing Halloween costumes] is CUTE.
  • 75D: [Some numbers in “The Fiery Angel” by Prokofiev] is ARIAS. I’ve never seen it, but some have called it “the weirdest and scariest opera ever written”.
  • 78D: [Saw location] is SHEDwhich isn’t exactly Halloween-related, but I’m listing it because the clue seems to refer to the “Saw” horror movie franchise if you say it out loud.
  • 79D: [Midnight cocktail in “Practical Magic”] is MARGARITA.
  • 83D: [Black light device, briefly] is UV LAMP.
  • 84D: [Like WarHeads candy] is ACID.
  • 89D: [Still showing Casper the Friendly Ghost, say] is CEL.
  • 102D: [“The Beast Within” author Zola] is EMIL.
  • 103D: [Nonalcoholic option at a Halloween party] is A SODA.
  • 105D: [Oct. 31, 1954 performer on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Nat King ___] is COLE.
  • 106D: [Fangorn Forest beings of fantasy fiction] is ENT.
  • 108D: [Stereotypically evil soap opera character] is DOUBLE.

Happy All Saints. Hope you had fun with the puzzle, whether you broke the meta or not.

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