Monday, March 2, 2015

Lou Reed’s 25 greatest characters

Any songwriter who stays active for five decades is going to rack up quite a roster of unforgettable characters. Lou Reed’s cast of grotesques, ghouls and tragic heroines could fill out a stack of novels, but I tend to like them just fine as songs. In honor of what would have been Lou’s 73rd birthday, here’s a rundown of a few of my personal favorites.

25. Lulu (from Lulu, 2011)
Lulu’s had a rough go of it. She’s been neglected, prostituted, abused, idolized and left empty, and the image of her limbless torso on the Lulu album cover suggests there’s more indignity to come. She may be the archetypal Lou Reed heroine, as I think of it. Shame her album is sort of a chore to get through in one sitting.

24. George (from “My Friend George, 1984)
The title character of “My Friend George” is an unhinged gym-rat avenger who spouts incoherent philosophy and attacks people with a stick that he apparently believes to be a sword. Some songwriters would cast George as a tragic victim of mental illness, but in Louville he’s some manner of small-time superhero. I can dig that.

23. Theoretical Children (from “Beginning of a Great Adventure,” 1989)
You have to be careful assuming any artwork is autobiographical, but “Beginning of a Great Adventure” sure sounds like a tongue-in-cheek accounting of Lou’s real life self-debate about having kids. Lou muses on moving to the country and raising a home-schooled “little liberal army in the woods.” His 10-strong “TV brood” would be equally adept at playing guitar, planting bombs and shooting hunters in the nuts and be at Lou’s side when he’s “a wizened, toothless clod.” It sounds like our loss that he never let the baby thing go too far.

22. All of the Jim-Jims (from “Heroin,” 1967)
I don’t know who or what a Jim-Jim is, but according to “Heroin” New York was full of them in the late ‘60s and Lou’s contempt for them makes me believe they’re a thing to dread.

21. Sweaty Dude (from “Animal Language,” 1973)
This guy lives in Heaven or something like it, yet his job involves placing a board between a dead dog and cat to keep them from copulating. Tough gig. On the other hand, the sexually frustrated pets resign themselves to shooting up his sweat, so his body apparently secretes powerful narcotics. I can see that making a crappy day job a little easier to take.

20. Ed (from “Wild Child,” 1972)
“Walk on the Wild Side” is the most famous example, but affectionate lists of weirdos were a recurring theme in Lou’s songs dating back as far as 1967’s “Run Run Run.” “Wild Child” is maybe my favorite of those tracks, and the self-absorbed, cheese-loving Ed is my favorite of the song’s multiple grotesques. “I was talkin’ to Ed, who’d been reported dead by a mutual friend. He thought it was funny that I had no money to spend on him.” Ed’s a jerk.

19. Dude with a Stiletto (from “Kicks,” 1976)
“Kicks” runs neck-and-neck with “The Gun” and “Rock Minuet” as Lou’s darkest delvings into psychopathy. This one gets my nod for Lou’s unnerving use of second-person and chillingly casual delivery. This is a guy who lures his bar pick-ups to their violent ends for no greater purpose than staving off boredom, and the song’s laconic pace just makes the grimness all the more disturbing.

18. Mok (from “My Name is Mok,” 1983)
OK, Mok isn’t technically a Lou Reed character. He’s the villain of Rock & Rule, a bizarre animated fantasy film that plays like the work of Ralph Bakshi on his most timid day. For most of the movie he’s voiced by Don Francks (best known as the original voice of Dr. Klaw on Inspector Gadget) as a smooth but ruthless rock superstar/supervillain clearly modeled after Mick Jagger. But all that changes when Mok finally sings his big show-stopping number, voiced by Lou. Despite its 1983 timestamp, “My Name Is Mok” is pure ‘70s Lou Reed, a snotty, swaggering self-paean that paints the singer as a supremely confident epitome of cool who would just as soon crush you as look at you. Sounds like somebody else I know…

17. Pedro (from “Dirty Blvd,” 1989)
My problem with Pedro is my problem with “Dirty Blvd” overall: as strong as both creations are, they also come awfully close to being too on the nose. Not that there weren’t plenty of real-life impoverished Latino kids with abusive parents living 10-to-an-overpriced-room in New York City in 1989, but Lou lays it on so thick the song falls just short of tipping into caricature. But all is forgiven for that final verse about Pedro looking through a discarded book of magic tricks and hoping he can make himself fly away from his existence. With that finale Lou captures something primal and aching and it’s so tragically beautiful I just want to give poor Pedro a hug.

16. The Heroine (from “The Heroine,” 1982)
The Heroine’s story is already well in progress by the time we join it, and it seems to be going poorly. She’s standing alone on the deck of a sinking ship in the midst of a ferocious storm while a civil war rages amongst the crew. There may also be a baby locked in a box somewhere on board. Whether she can do anything to save anyone at this point is doubtful, but she can still “transcend all the men” and inspire some faith, however misplaced.

15. The Fat Blonde Actress (from “New Age,” 1970)
A casual ear might easily mistake the Fat Blonde Actress for the butt of the dark joke of “New Age,” when really she’s anything but. Both here and in the song’s semi-sequel “What Becomes a Legend Most,” she comes off far better than the smug fan who asks for an autograph as a preamble to bedding a faded star. Lou’s lyrics (and Doug Yule’s career-best vocal performance) imbue his leading lady with a dignity and presence that exceed her diminished standing on the Hollywood landscape. She may be “over the hill now and looking for love,” but she’s still more of a legend than her courtier will ever be.

14. The Man (from “I’m Waiting for the Man,” 1967)
A perpetually tardy dude in black strolling up the street in P.R. shoes and a big straw hat cuts quite a figure. The song is all about the waiting - and the waiter is a fascinating character in his own right - but when The Man himself is on the scene there’s no question where your eyes go.

13. Sally (from "Sally Can't Dance" and "Ride Sally Ride," 1974)
Sally’s about as punk as they come, a sexually omnivorous New York City libertine who ignores gender norms, dabbles in modeling and imbibes drugs and whiskey on the dance floor. The song arguably casts her as a heroine, but this being Lou Reed’s New York, society isn’t going to let anyone get away with living that freely. Over the course of the song she also gets raped in Tompkins Square Park, is stuffed in the trunk of a Ford and presumably dies of either an overdose or murder. It’s no mistake that the song that introduces her, the album-opening “Ride Sally Ride,” is a somber dirge about hanging out at a party and relishing having a heart of ice.

12. Dirt (from “Dirt,” 1978)
Sardonic vitriol is kind of Lou’s thing, and his venom never stung more sharply than on this ode to an anonymous poseur. It’s Lou Reed’s “Positively 4th Street,” minus the subtlety and wordplay, a spiteful celebration of the comeuppance of a scumbag “who’d eat shit and say it tasted good, if there was some money in it for ‘em.” The repeated invocations of the writ of Bobby Fuller suggest that this miscreant has run afoul of the law, but I doubt it’s the sort of infraction the police would bother with. The Law of Lou is a harsh one indeed.

11. Candy (from “Candy Says,” 1969)
Candy doesn’t have much to like in her life. She hates her body, quiet places and big decisions. The bluebirds pass her by and she worries that other people are talking about her discreetly. Yet somehow her song is possessed of a flickering, sickly hope that lends it an odd beauty and keeps it from spilling into despair. It’s an aching portrait of the quagmire of late ‘60s femininity and life as a trans woman that loses none of its power in a modern context.

10. Jackie (from “Walk on the Wild Side,” 1973)
I probably could have included every character from “Walk on the Wild Side,” what with their soul food and shaved legs and good head. But Jackie’s the one who’s always spoken to me the most, mainly because of that line about how she “thought she was James Dean for a day.” It’s a humanizing touch amidst Lou’s affectionate parade of Factory-made oddballs. Who among us hasn’t convinced ourselves we could be our romantic heroes, just for one day? But then I guess we have to crash...

9. Waldo Jeffers (from “The Gift,” 1968)
Lou Reed managed to create the definitive portrait of the Internet Nice Guy several decades before the internet was a thing. Waldo’s an insecure Pennsylvania college kid spending his summer break obsessing over imagined infidelities perpetrated by Marcia, his sort-of girlfriend in Wisconsin. He’s painted himself as a true romantic who has “intuitively grasped every nook and cranny of her psyche,” but really he’s a sniveling creep who regards Marcia as his inviolable property. Lou’s obvious disdain for his character makes it all the more satisfying when Waldo’s grand gesture goes as wrong as it possibly could.

8. Last Great American Whale (from “Last Great American Whale,” 1989)
This is a song about a superhero whale who fights racism and oppression along the American coast (and sometimes as far inland as Chinatown, if you can trust your mother). It doesn’t make a whole ton of sense but gosh, is it a comforting fantasy to have a stoic behemoth lurking out in the depths and looking out for the little guy.

7. Fucked-Up Middle Class College Student (from “I Wanna Be Black,” 1978)
Oy, this guy. You remember this guy from undergrad days, right? Got obsessed with another culture and claimed to empathize deeply with their beliefs, but only knew as much as television told him about their actual existence. This kid rattles off every “cool black dude” stereotype under the sun yet never sees that he’s most racist guy in the room.

6. Little Joey Diaz (from “Romeo Had Juliette,” 1989)
“Romeo Had Juliette” is Lou’s lyrical masterpiece, a little novella of meaningful gestures and perfectly chosen words. While the amorous Romeo Rodriguez and his slick black ponytail are the stars of the show, supporting player Little Joey Diaz is a marvel of economic characterization through dialogue. From his first line - “I bet you I could hit that light with my one good arm behind my back” - he’s instantly recognizable as that motormouth guy in your crew who drives you nuts with his yapping but is strangely endearing nonetheless. In the span of one verse he brags on his pitching prowess, downplays his disability, smokes some grass, engages in some light bigotry and celebrates the death of a cop. Little Joey packs more living into an evening of hanging on a street corner than most folks do in a month.

5. Lou (from “Doin’ the Things That We Want To” and “New Sensations,” 1984)
Again, conflating an artist with his work is always dicey, but there are quite a few songs in the Lou Reed canon that are pretty evidently autobiographical, from the recovering addict of “The Last Shot” to the domestic homebody of “My House” to the cautious optimist of “NYC Man.” His powers of self-observation were never stronger than on New Sensations’ double-shot of “Doin’ the Things That We Want To” and “New Sensations.”

The former finds Lou attending a production of Sam Shepard’s A Fool for Love and getting lost in a reverie of all the art that knocks him out, particularly the films of Martin Scorcese. The latter isn’t much more than a simple recounting of a day when Lou had a good time riding his motorcycle on country roads. Both are filled with such an infectious, exuberant delight in the  little joys of life that they make Lou Reed seem downright human. That’s no small feat.

4. Drella (from Songs for Drella, 1990)
I’ve never seen a movie biopic that captures the soul of an artist and his world nearly as elegantly as does Songs for Drella, and I’ve read precious few biographies that approach it either. Lou’s album-length collaboration with John Cale is a passionate, conflicted, scintillating portrait of Andy Warhol crafted by two artists who cared deeply about their former mentor. Whatever your feelings on Warhol as an artist or a media figure, it’s hard for me to imagine anyone coming away from Songs for Drella without a sense of loss and sympathy for the flawed, frightened, ferocious visionary portrayed in these songs.

3. Flophouse Guy (from “Street Hassle,” 1978)
This guy is a dick, but that’s sort of to be expected from a cat who’s presumably the proprietor of a New York shooting gallery. His amiably callous ramble on how to properly dispose of an overdosed house guest is the calcified heart of “Street Hassle,” a chilling stroll through a world where death and drugs intermingle easily with small talk and half-assed philosophy (“Some people got no choice and they can never find a voice to talk with that they can even call their own, so the first thing that they see that allows them the right to be, why, they follow it. Y’know what it’s called? Bad luck.”) “Street Hassle” is arguably the single greatest piece of music Lou ever recorded and this guy is vital to its jaded brilliance.

2. Caroline (from Berlin, 1973)
To say Lou’s opus of despair Berlin is the story of a failing marriage would be putting it lightly. It’s an account of a marriage simultaneously imploding and exploding and threatening to destroy everyone within its orbit. While the he-said-she-said structure of the album’s narrative gives more or less equal time to her husband Jim, it’s Caroline who emerges as the heart of the story. She’s made her share of bad judgments, from serial infidelity to child endangerment, but Lou’s portrayal of Caroline is by far the more sympathetic. Like so many of his heroines, she’s an emotionally wounded woman butting up against a man’s world that refuses to let her live. By the time “Caroline Says II" rolls around we’ve heard Jim level a litany of charges against her, but her blank delivery of “You can hit me all you want to, but I don’t love you anymore” renders all of his complaints little more than petulant whining. Caroline won’t come to a good end, of course - she slits her wrists in her marital bed after Jim gets her children taken away by the authorities - and her tragedy is only compounded by her husband’s final smirk of “I am much happier this way.” Dark stuff even for Lou Reed, but damn if it doesn’t ring true.

1. Jenny (from “Rock & Roll,” 1970)
If you’ve never had an artistic revelation like Jenny dancing to that fine, fine music, that marvelous moment of clarity when a piece of art slapped you in the face and showed you a world beyond whatever doldrums you’d been mired in, then I just don’t know how to respond to you. Jenny’s life was saved by rock and roll. Mine was saved by “Rock & Roll.” Maybe yours was saved by a movie or a book or a photograph or a play or a sunrise. Whatever your particular salvation, I hope you know where Jenny is coming from. Jenny is everyperson.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The top 7 pop culture items my son introduced me to in 2014

My son turned five last week. It’s a good age, as all of his ages to date have been. My wife and I have had fun introducing some of our favorite things to him, but it’s been just as much fun watching him discover his own favorites and letting him share them with us. Here are seven of the coolest things I discovered in 2014 that I probably wouldn’t have without the boy’s guidance.

How to Train Your Dragon (Film)
One fateful family movie night in early fall, the boy requested a rental of Dreamworks' well-regarded How to Train Your Dragon. He's not one to get fixated on any one pop culture item (my slightly smug condolences to all the families who've endured several dozen viewings of Frozen in the past year), but every now and then he latches onto a serious favorite. We've seen How to Train Your Dragon several times over and How to Train Your Dragon 2 twice in the theater. My wife and I regularly snuggle up with him on the couch to watch the Cartoon Network TV adaptation, which is entertaining enough that none of us like to miss an episode.

Plot-wise the original movie is nothing all that new - misfit kid bonds with a misunderstood animal and teaches his elders to reconsider their outdated traditions - but it's visually lovely (famed cinematographer Roger Deakins was an advisor on both movies) and full of appealing characterizations and rich world-building. I love how the films and shows avoid Disney-style anthropomorphism and let the dragons behave like pets and wild beasts. I’ve seen enough superfluous, wacky sidekicks in the past five years that  watching an animal be an animal feels almost revolutionary. It's certainly struck a chord with the boy. I can't remember the last time one of our imaginary games didn't involve some manner of dragons.
How to Train Your Dragon (Books)
As much of an imagination-starter as the movies and shows have been, they don't hold a candle to Cressida Cowell's series of adventure books. The boy made the leap to chapter books this year, so we naturally had to check out the source material for his favorite movie. Turns out the books are goofier, grosser and considerably darker than the films (and given the last third of How to Train Your Dragon 2, that's saying something). The names and basic personality traits of several major characters are the only threads that really tie the two together. While these dragons are markedly more anthropomorphic than their animated counterparts - they speak "Dragonese" and display human emotions - they’re still a far cry from Disney.

The ongoing saga of Hiccup Horrendous Haddock III, the misfit Viking boy doomed to be a hero, is fraught with horrors ranging from torture to witchcraft to slavery, and it's all fantastic. It’s little-kid high adventure that flashes me back to my favorite books from my own boyhood. Since October the boy and I have read nine of the series' eleven books (a grand total of something like 2700 pages). Every night I'm just as eager as he is to find out what happens next. 

I think the boy’s favorite feature of the series is the detailed profiles Cowell compiles for the various dragons. He can rattle off the names and defining traits of dozens of dragon species, from the Poisonous Piffleworm to the Brainless Leg-Remover to the Seadragonus Giganticus Maximus. He’s also invented a number of his own dragon species, which he describes with clinical precision and a perfect imitation of Cowell’s prose style. That’s a mark of some good kid-lit right there.

I was never much of a gamer - if it doesn't have Mario or NBA basketball players in it, I probably haven't played it - but it's a fact of modern-day parenting that video games are as much a part of today's pop culture childhood as VCRs were part of mine. With that in mind, we've let the boy explore some age-appropriate gaming on the tablet and computer. The biggest hit thus far has been Machinarium, an eerily beautiful puzzle and adventure game from the independent Czech studio Amanita Design. It's the deceptively simple story of a spirited little robot trying to rescue his friends from a group of robo-thugs who have taken over their metal-strewn home town. I say "deceptively" because I'll be damned if I can figure out half the puzzles. That's my science-minded wife's department. She and the boy have spent any number of hours huddled around her Surface tablet cracking codes and solving problems for their robot buddy. I'm content to just look on and nod as I watch the twin marches of time and technology troop on by.

Was (Not Was)
This one is kind of indirect, but I’m counting it anyway. During a conversation about dinosaurs this summer I naturally started singing “Walk the Dinosaur,” which naturally led me to show the boy the video on YouTube, which naturally led to me wondering about the rest of the Was (Not Was) catalog, which naturally led to me discovering that Was (Not Was) is a pretty good band. They pull off ‘80s funk about as well as anybody not from Minneapolis, and their oeuvre is both smarter and much more extensive than their several-hit-wonder reputation might suggest. The boy, of course, just likes “Walk the Dinosaur.” That’s cool too.

The Iron Giant
I picked up Ted Hughes’ children’s book (originally titled The Iron Man in the UK but changed for its American release for obvious reasons) at the library knowing only that it was written by Sylvia Plath’s husband and that Brad Bird made it into a beloved movie. It’s a fun, pleasantly melancholy book, particularly considering that Hughes wrote it largely to comfort his children after their mother’s suicide. I’m especially fond of the early going, when the Iron Giant mostly shambles about the English countryside eating metal. I’m less enamored of the closing chapter, where the Giant saves the Earth from an invading space bat, but of course that’s the boy’s favorite part.

The movie is as good as advertised, deftly transforming Hughes’ shaggy story into a moving Cold War meditation filled with lush hand-drawn animation and excellent voice acting. Bird wisely substitutes an overzealous military official for the space bat, creating a fantasy that blends smoothly with real-life fears and wonderments. It’s also a good way to ease kids into an awareness of Vin Diesel, a knowledge base that will be increasingly vital as they approach adulthood.

Local Current
One of the many things I love about Minnesota is that it’s one of the few places in America that would have a 24-hour radio stream dedicated solely to local music. I’d listened to Local Current on my computer here and there in the past, but it wasn’t until we bought a new car with HD radio capability that I really dug into it, and it wasn’t until the boy responded enthusiastically to the playlist that it became my default radio station. For whatever reason, Minnesota music speaks to him in a way other formats don’t. We tune in every morning on the way to preschool and chat about the different artists and song styles. So far he seems especially fond of Lizzo, Bob Dylan and Doomtree (I’ve caught him wandering around the house singing “Doomtree Bangarang, Doomtree Bangarang” several times). As a bonus, our Scion's dashboard display of the song title and artist name is proving to be a surprisingly effective tool for beginning reading.

Japanese Monster Movies
I’ll own up to something embarrassing: before this year, I’d never watched an entire kaiju movie without the protective sheen of Mystery Science Theater 3000. I’m not sure how that happened, as those movies fall perfectly within my sphere of interests, but there you have it. Fortunately, this summer’s Godzilla remake generated some heavy buzz around the preschool water cooler and the boy started asking all sorts of questions about Godzilla’s origins, motivations and enemies. I’m enough of a trash film buff that I could give him semi-informed answers on those topics but eventually it was time to brave the movies themselves.

I decided to ease him into kaiju films with Gamera, the giant flaming turtle known as a “friend to all children.” We started with Gamera vs. Barugon (a subtitled print which I read aloud to him) then moved on to the truly bizarre Gamera vs. Guiron (aka Attack of the Monsters), in which the titular hero rescues two Earth children stranded on a distant planet populated entirely by two attractive young cannibal women and their pet monster. After that we worked our way into the genuine article with Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and the marvelous Mothra vs. Godzilla, easily our favorite of the bunch.

As much as the boy digs his Japanese monsters, he’s understandably bored by much of the perfunctory human-oriented filler material wedged in between creature battles (heck, who isn’t?), so it made for a nice compromise when we discovered Hanna-Barbara’s short-lived ‘70s Godzilla cartoon on Amazon. That’s his favorite incarnation at the moment, but I’m sure we’ll get back to the movies in the near future, probably next time Mommy is out for the evening. Mommy does not care for giant rubber monsters.

Friday, October 31, 2014

What Bela Lugosi can teach every artist

Bela Lugosi was destined for immortality from the moment he donned the Dracula cape and arched his eyebrows for Tod Browning's camera. But thanks in large part to Tim Burton, the last two decades have seen Bela achieving a second everlasting life as the pitiable and desiccated muse of Edward D. Wood, Jr. Casual fans could be forgiven for believing that Martin Landau's portrayal of Lugosi writhing in a wading pool with a rubber octopus in Bride of the Monster was an accurate depiction of Bela hitting bottom, but truth be told, Bela's career had dipped lower than that any number of times. 

I've watched a lot of Bela Lugosi movies over the years. The Ed Wood movies are certainly in the lower tier, but at least they're made by a director with a distinct personal style and, more importantly, a genuine appreciation for Lugosi's talents and place in cinema history. 

Compare that to, say, William Beaudine, an insanely prolific, zero-budget hired gun who cranked out endless, soulless genre pictures. Beaudine directed what I would classify as the true low point of Bela's career, 1952's Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla. Lugosi's star was long since descended by '52, but this movie has so little going for it that I don't question the producer's decision to slap the star's name in the title and cash in on what little bankability he had left.

Actually, Bela isn't even the star of the movie that borrowed his name. He has fairly limited screen time as the mad scientist who torments co-leads Duke Mitchell and Sammy Petrillo, a real-life comedy duo whose entire shtick was doing a passable impression of Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Mitchell and Petrillo's subsequent lives and film careers are fascinating in their own right, but they're beyond excruciating in Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, playing a nightclub act stranded on a remote tropical island populated by friendly, grotesquely stereotyped natives and one rogue geneticist who's determined to transform Mitchell into an ape.

It's an icky, unfunny wallow in undistinguished, undignified filmmaking, but you'd never know it to watch Bela's performance. Bela gives it his all, playing the role with all the sly intensity and creepy charm that marked the best work of his younger days. Obviously he had to know he wasn't involved with any kind of masterpiece - this was a star vehicle for a professional Jerry Lewis impersonator, for heaven's sake - but it just wasn't in Bela's nature to half-ass it for a paycheck.

I've seen Bela waist-deep in all manner of dreck, be it playing fifth or sixth fiddle to the sub-vaudevillian antics of the Ritz Brothers in The Gorilla, toddling behind Basil Rathbone as a mute manservant in The Black Sleep or lurching around the city stealing spinal fluid in a ludicrous hairy mask in Beaudine's The Ape Man. (Side note: Bela Lugosi appeared in an inordinate number of simian-themed movies.) He got handed scripts possessed of not an ounce of imagination: he was repeatedly asked to rehash Dracula with diminishing returns and made at least four movies wherein he played a scientist driven mad by the death of his wife. It's safe to say that the vast majority of Bela's résumé was irredeemable garbage.

Despite all of that, I could not point you to a weak Bela Lugosi performance. Even in the direst of cinematic circumstances, Bela threw his heart into every vaguely drawn part. He played to the rafters, exuding menace and charisma as he glowered over long-forgotten actors many degrees his inferior. By all accounts he resented the hell out of his typecasting as a horror movie heavy, but he never let that distaste leak through to the screen. He did his damnedest to make sure people left the theater muttering, "That was an awful Bela Lugosi movie" and not "Bela Lugosi was awful in that movie."

Compare that ethic to any number of Lugosi's b-movie counterparts over the ages. Bela was far from the only trained, talented actor forced to slum it in terrible genre films. Lon Chaney, Jr's late-career performances (Spider-Baby excepted) range from bored to embarrassed. John Carradine never failed to deliver the bombast, but many of his low-budget roles were scarcely more than disdainful paycheck cameos. Vincent Price was dependable but prone to slipping onto hammy autopilot. Donald Pleasance occasionally roused himself for a sketchy role, as in Raw Meat, but more often than not just looked irritated to be wasting his talents on such trash. Of all the great names of bad horror, only Peter Cushing comes close to Bela in his dedication to craft in the face of adversity. But even there, Cushing's screen persona was far more mannerly, his menace much quieter. Even in the depths of dreck like The Blood Beast Terror, which found him wrestling a bloodthirsty humanoid moth-monster, Cushing was allowed his dignity. He was certainly never left to stumble around a papier-mache jungle while being outsmarted by Sammy frigging Petrillo and Steve Calvert in a gorilla suit.

But Bela was, and he squeezed every drop of lemonade out of every bag of lemons Hollywood handed him. Granted, he had a notorious opiate addiction driving him to take work wherever it was available, but he could have easily phoned in his performances in those low-grade cheapies and no one on set would have said a word about it. But he never did, and that's remarkable.

That's why I count Bela Lugosi as one of my greatest inspirations. I've been writing for money and pleasure for my entire adult life. In that time I've been asked to write all manner of things that do not interest me in the least, and plenty more things I might initially have dismissed as "beneath me." I'm the first to admit that I've made some unadvisable choices in my writing career, but I can't come up with many examples of me not putting my best effort into a project. Whether it's a feature for a national publication, a concert blurb for a local magazine or even a casual tweet on a Wednesday night, I try my hardest to make sure it's the best piece of writing I can muster.

Some of that is probably because I still believe - perhaps foolishly - that I'm a writer on the rise and every piece of work I put out to the world is a potential audition. I'll be interested to see whether I can sustain this attitude if and when I find myself irredeemably over the hill and past my peak, as Bela surely realized he was by the time he was paired up with Petrillo and Mitchell, or when he was "rescued" by Ed Wood.  It's one thing to give it your all when there's a promise of greater things shimmering on the horizon and quite another when all is lost and the art is truly just for the art's sake. Should I ever come to such a turn, I can only hope that I manage to do it as gracefully as Bela Lugosi.