Analysis | Solution to Evan Birnholz’s Oct. 30 crossword, “Alternative Rock” (2023)

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

It may not be the worst mistake one can make, yet it was still maddening for me as a lifelong fan of “The Simpsons.” I’d seen that episode several times way back when, but I must have forgotten that detail about why Homer took the class. So, sorry about that slip-up. I’ve updated the clue to [Fictional attendee of Springfield High School during the 1970s] for the online version.

The instructions to the metapuzzle say we are looking for “the two-word rock band playing at this puzzle’s concert.” You’ll spot the seven obvious theme answers right away; they’re the fill-in-the-blank clues about people requesting that the mystery band play songs related to their Halloween costumes.

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

There’s also a key hint in the bottom-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 is NAMES. That information was left out of the clues, so let’s look them up.

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

Now what? Listing off the song titles or the band names in order doesn’t seem to spell much. But take a look around the grid and think about the puzzle’s title, and you may lock on to the meta’s key step: Each band name is hiding in the grid with one letter changed.

  • 14A: [Delmer ___, director of the 1957 western “3:10 to Yuma”] is DAVES, one letter off of DAWES.
  • 27A: [Horned beast] is RAM, one letter off of REM.
  • 53A: ["Alien” actor Ian] is HOLM, one letter off of HOLE.
  • 54A: [Part of a Darth Vader costume] is CAPE, one letter off of CAKE.
  • 89A: [Reacted to being frightened, maybe] is CRIED, one letter off of CREED.
  • 101A: [Non-heteronormative] is QUEER, one letter off of QUEEN.
  • 105D: [Oct. 31, 1954 performer on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Nat King ___] is COLE, one letter off of COLD.

The changed letters in grid order spell out VAMPIRE, and the original letters in the band names in the squares spell out WEEKEND, which leads to the meta answer VAMPIRE WEEKEND.

My wife and I got to see Vampire Weekend perform in Philadelphia in September 2019 at the end of a whirlwind series of rock concerts. We must have gone to four or five different concerts in 30 days at the time. It was especially lucky that we got to see all those shows since neither of us could have foreseen a pandemic that would shut down all rock concerts only six months later.

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But anyhow, if you haven’t heard of Vampire Weekend, maybe take a listen to some of their more well-known songs like “A-Punk” and “Oxford Comma.” The original idea was actually to title the puzzle “Cover Band” and hint at two different eight-letter bands, DAFT PUNK and SLIPKNOT, both of which are famous for wearing masks during their shows. But what’s more Halloween weekend than the name Vampire Weekend? The trick then was finding one-word bands that a) switch their W-E-E-K-E-N-D letters to V-A-M-P-I-R-E and get another valid word, b) have song titles that could be clearly tied to a specific costume, and c) have song titles that were unique enough such that you could Google them and feel reasonably confident that you found the correct bands.

As a bonus, I aimed to build a grid so that you’d get valid words when you use either the VAMPIRE or WEEKEND letters. For instance, 16D: [Windblown rooftop device] is VANE, and changing the crossing DAVES to DAWES gives you WANE. 2D: [Tess’s daughter in “Freaky Friday” (2003)] is ANNA, and changing RAM at 27A to R.E.M. gives you ANNE at 2D instead.

I have to admit, though, that there was one flaw with the meta that I didn’t catch until after I’d built the puzzle. The answer COLE works for two of those band names, COLD (the correct one) and HOLE. I had been careful while building the grid about avoiding words that were one letter off of R.E.M. besides RAM like REN, RIM, HEM, DEM, REP, RED, RUM, and so on. It would be really easy for one of those three-letter red herrings to sneak in and unintentionally throw you off the scent.

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But for whatever reason, I missed that COLE is an inadvertent half-red herring, too, and if you matched that answer with HOLE, you could be left with a string of gibberish for your final answer. My hope is that this problem would only temporarily slow you up since you do need both COLE and HOLM to figure out the meta, and HOLM is unambiguous about which band it’s hinting at. That issue did frighten me when I first noticed it, though, which I guess is appropriate for a Halloween puzzle.

Finally, 'tis the season, so I gave many of the clues 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 TAPE.
  • 52A: [Snack on Halloween candy, say] is EAT.
  • 53A: ["Alien” actor Ian] is HOLM.
  • 54A: [Part of a Darth Vader costume] is CAPE.
  • 55A: [___-devil] is SHE.
  • 57A: [Media org. that shares “Spooked” podcast episodes on its website] is NPR.
  • 64A: ["Deep Blue Sea” terrors] is 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 in the theater. It’s ... bizarre.
  • 74A: [Mythical horned being] is FAUN.
  • 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 APP.
  • 82A: [Noise in a dark forest] is HOOT.
  • 89A: [Reacted to being frightened, maybe] is CRIED.
  • 95A: [___ Hard (Manic Panic hair-coloring gel)] is DYE.
  • 96A: [Slimy creature] is SLUG.
  • 99A: ["The Mummy” insect] is SCARAB.
  • 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 SNAPE.
  • 37D: [Giant insect in the monster film “Them!”] is ANT.
  • 39D: [Put on, as a costume] is DON.
  • 42D: [Horror film reaction] is SHOCK.
  • 43D: [Hits, as with eggs] is PELTS.
  • 44D: [Body parts that first emerge from graves, in zombie tropes] is ARMS.
  • 55D: [Like spiders’ webs] is SPUN.
  • 56D: ["Boo” partner] is HISS.
  • 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 this “the weirdest and creepiest opera ever written.”
  • 78D: [Saw location] is SHED, which isn’t exactly Halloween-related but I’m listing it because the clue sounds like it’s referring to the “Saw” horror film 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 SOUR.
  • 89D: [Still showing Casper the Friendly Ghost, say] is CEL.
  • 102D: ["The Beast Within” author Zola] is EMILE.
  • 103D: [Nonalcoholic option at a Halloween party] is SODA.
  • 105D: [Oct. 31, 1954 performer on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Nat King ___] is COLE.
  • 106D: [Fangorn Forest beings of fantasy fiction] is ENTS.
  • 108D: [Stereotypically evil soap opera character] is TWIN.

Happy All Hallows’ Eve. I hope you had fun with the puzzle whether you cracked the meta or not.

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