Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Of Lou Reed, Susan Boyle and the dreaded "Hallelujah" effect

I was as moderately tickled as anyone when the whole Susan Boyle phenomenon kicked off last summer. It was a nice moment of underdog catharsis that I figured would flare up and burn out quickly like any good viral video. I didn’t expect Susan Boyle would still be registering on my consciousness in November of 2010, and I certainly didn’t expect that my main man Lou Reed would be pulled into her vortex.

And yet, here we are. Lou recently took some heat for allegedly refusing to let Boyle sing his lovely junkie ode “Perfect Day” at some benefit or awards show or what-have-you, a slight that apparently reduced England’s latest rose to tears. Now, of course, it all turns out to have been some big misunderstanding, and Lou is inexplicably eager to make sure that nobody thinks he’s maybe sort of a bit of a jerk (a textbook case of too little, 40 years too late).

We all know that Lou doesn’t do anything half-assed (The Raven notwithstanding), so a mere apology simply wouldn’t do. No, Lou stepped up to the plate and offered to direct the music video for Boyle’s “Perfect Day” cover. It’s a very Lou Reed type of favor, in that he gets a chance to look like a good guy even as he advances his decade-long agenda of being taken seriously as a genuine artiste. The video is okay in my estimation – Lou shoots some nice, moody landscapes and Boyle’s Enya-esque vocals are decent if not stunning. It’s a handsomely mounted, crowd-pleasing production, and therein lies my concern.

I remember back in the day having arguments with my music nerd buddies about the superlative rendition of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” – Cohen’s, John Cale’s or Jeff Buckley’s. (I stand by Cale, though Buckley seems to be the consensus pick.) Ah, but those were different times. Somewhere down the line, Rufus Wainwright’s edition of “Hallelujah” was licensed for use on the Shrek soundtrack, thereby catching the attention of a generation of bland young songbirds. Since then it’s become nigh unavoidable, spilling from the glossy lips of unimaginative vocalists on prime time TV shows, in karaoke clubs and at acoustic open mic nights. Cohen’s masterwork of sexual frustration and Biblical allegories has been stripped of its power and reduced to a higher-minded “You Light Up My Life” for the new millennium. I used to adore “Hallelujah,” but it’s gotten to the point that I cringe as soon as I hear a breathy intonation of “I heard there was a secret chord.”

The “Hallelujah” effect is what I fear for “Perfect Day.” Aside from maybe “Sweet Jane,” it’s already probably Lou Reed's most frequently covered song. That makes sense – “Perfect Day” works well in unexpected contexts. Its use as the backing track to a heroin overdose in Trainspotting was transcendent. Duran Duran scored a solid hit with their 1995 cover. Reed prodigy Antony’s rendition is beyond haunting.

But few songs can withstand a “Hallelujah” style vault into ubiquity, and these two share some unsettling traits. They’re both very pretty songs about some ugly subjects. They’re both literate enough to lend some unearned gravitas to nearly any singer. And they’re both written by guys who can be easily name-checked for instant street cred.

I got a little nervous when “Perfect Day” was featured prominently in a very tasteful ad during the recent Winter Olympics. It already holds a surprisingly high profile in the UK thanks to a fairly dreadful, “We Are the World” style 1997 charity recording featuring Lou and a cast of all-stars. Now this Susan Boyle business makes me worried that it’ll be popping up whenever an aging pop starlet wants to prove something with more “serious” material, or worse yet, when American Idol or Glee feel like working a little edge into the mix. Hell, the Norwegians are already all over it:

I know it’s silly to be so protective of someone else’s song. After all, can anyone ever really own a work of art? But heck, I freely admit to my snobbery. I understand that “Perfect Day” belongs to the world, and that’s what scares me. I mean, have you seen some of the stuff the world is into these days?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Tom Emmer believes in having seven children

When it comes to politics, I suppose I’m what they call a single-issue voter. I really don’t give a lot of thought to budgets or tax breaks or things like that. What I’m mainly concerned about when I walk into my local polling place is where the candidates stand on the issue of having seven children.

That’s why Tom Emmer is my man in this year’s Minnesota gubernatorial race. Tom Emmer made it very clear right out of the gate that he is strongly in favor of having seven children. In fact, he's made having seven children one of the cornerstones of his run. His earliest campaign ad was entirely dedicated to this immensely important issue. The ad prominently featured the smiling faces of Emmer’s kids, all lined up outside the family home in an easy-to-tally fashion. If anyone ever tries to tell you that Tom Emmer is soft on having seven children, you can count them for yourself: One, two, three, four, five, six… seven!

Even when Emmer doesn’t include his own seven children in his campaign advertising, the topic is clearly never far from his heart. Subsequent ads run on Emmer’s behalf have featured a variety of multi-ethnic children being traumatized by the policies embraced by Emmer’s opponents. Some might say that this is pandering or overselling the concept, but I don’t believe so. These ads simply reflect Tom Emmer’s passion for and tireless dedication to having seven children.

I don’t mean to disparage Tom Emmer’s worthy opponents, both of whom have some admirable qualities of their own. But the fact of the matter is that Emmer is the lone candidate with the courage to have seven children. It’s difficult for me to fully embrace Independence Party candidate Tom Horner’s wishy-washy position of having three children. To me, that suggests hedging one’s bets and playing things too safe. Worse yet, DFL candidate Mark Dayton showed a disturbing lack of backbone when he joined the “two children of a failed marriage” camp. Despite any other winning traits these men may possess, I’m afraid I just can’t look past their lack of commitment to having seven children. At a certain point, one simply has to wonder whether the poor planning that contributed to Dayton and Horner’s failure to have seven children will bleed over into their governance.

I know what you’re thinking: “But what about Tom Emmer’s history? Hasn’t he flip-flopped repeatedly on the having seven children issue?” It’s true. At various points in the past, Tom Emmer has adopted multiple views on this topic. Among other positions, he has previously adhered to the doctrine of having six, five and, yes, even two children. If one follows the paper trail back far enough, there is even evidence that Emmer took a steadfast position of having no children for much of his youth. Some see this as hypocrisy, but I think of it as an indicator that Tom Emmer is a man willing to learn, expand his worldview and grow as a person. Past positions aren’t important. What’s important is that Tom Emmer is currently committed to having seven children, and will continue to be for the foreseeable future.

I fully understand if you’re not swayed by this analysis. I realize that I have a certain degree of tunnel vision when it comes to this issue, but it’s one that I hold dear to my heart. As always, I encourage my fellow Minnesotans to follow their own hearts when they head to the polls this November. I, for one, will be voting for Tom Emmer.

Because Tom Emmer believes in having seven children. And that’s what matters.

Friday, October 8, 2010

Father spoke of the New York Yankees

"No," Father said, "The Yankees are not evil, no more than a germ is evil, or a tornado. Things like these are creations of nature. They only follow the constraints of that nature and can never hope to do otherwise, can never hope at all. That nature may have evil results, may destroy those things we deem good, but it is not itself evil. It only is."

Father took a small sip from the tumbler, his gaze focused somewhere on the horizon beyond our heads. "Because evil is a human construct, and tornados and germs and Yankees are not human. Perhaps these Yankees were human at one time, but to a man they surrendered all claim on humanity the instant they paid their busfare and lit out for the Bronx. Now they are little more than automatons, an unfeeling fleet of pinstriped golems laboring without thought or joy or even ambition, prevailing inevitably because that is what they do and why they are."

He sat then, folding into the worn leather armchair with a weariness we had never seen before. "There is no shame in losing to these Yankees," he murmured. "Just as there is no thrill in winning for these Yankees. They will continue, insensate and unblinking, and we will stand in the shallows, steel-jawed and buoyed by false bravado, like beachcombers trapped in a cove, praying into an indifferent void that maybe this will be the one time among millions when the rip tide ebbs before reaching the shore but knowing in our hearts that our drowning is imminent. And in the end our only comfort may be that no matter how many glories they reap, they will glean no enjoyment, no fulfillment, because again these feelings, all feelings, are the domain of a humanity that is no more than a vague shimmer of memory for these Yankees."

"No," Father said, "The Yankees are not evil, but they are damned. They are damned." And Father was weeping now, but when we looked in his eyes we saw no trace of sorrow.

- Ira Brooker

Monday, September 13, 2010

Stephen Malkmus sums up the Pavement reunion (and reunion tours in general) in one pithy bit of stage banter

"The fuckin' '90s were cool; hummus was exotic."
- Stephen Malkmus, September 12, 2010 at Roy Wilkins Auditorium in Saint Paul, MN

Sunday, August 1, 2010

A Modest Proposal for BP CEO Tony Hayward

Dear Mr. Hayward,

Let me just say right at the top that I know you have already taken far more heat than your limited personal involvement in BP’s Gulf Coast oil spill probably merits. I have no doubt that the events leading up to the spill occurred too far down the corporate food chain for you to ever notice until it was too late. That said, you are the company’s CEO for at least a few more months. Fair or not, the buck stops with you. It is human nature to want to attach an individual face to any major event. Yours is the face of many of BP’s past successes, and it will forever be the face of this catastrophe. To paraphrase Batman’s rationale for sacrificing his reputation to uphold Harvey Dent’s in The Dark Knight, this crisis needs a symbol. That symbol has to be you.

I do hope that you count yourself lucky, Mr. Hayward. You are getting out of this morass with only a presumably brief period of unemployment (subsidized by a multi-million-dollar pension, no less) as your penance. That is a lenient sentence by anyone’s standards, especially considering the very public penalties paid by your counterparts in China. Had this happened in Chinese waters, you may well have been executed for your negligence, just like a number of officials and executives who oversaw recent safety violations by Chinese corporations.

Now, far be it from me to advocate China’s philosophy toward crime and punishment. Their human rights record is far too heinous for me to ever seriously endorse their punitive methods. Still, it is oddly refreshing to consider a system that regards the architects of massive corporate violations as roughly equivalent to hit men, drive-by shooters and other profit-oriented murderers.

And make no mistake, Mr. Hayward – you and BP are indeed murderers. Even beyond the 11 lives snuffed out in the initial explosion, beyond the myriad animal species driven to the brink of extinction, your callous incompetence has shattered the existences of thousands of families across the Gulf Coast and beyond. Worse than that, the ongoing devastation wrought by your oil spill threatens to effectively extinguish one of the last vestiges of indigenous society in America. The Louisiana bayous are home to a distinctive Creole and Cajun culture that has survived for hundreds of years. Now your oil is on pace to obliterate the livelihood and surroundings that have previously sustained that culture through all manner of natural and man-made disasters. I hope that I am wrong, but it is quite possible that BP has launched what amounts to environmental and economic genocide.

I’m sure you genuinely believe yourself to be mostly blameless in this whole debacle, Mr. Hayward, but as a human being you must understand our need to see someone suffer some consequences for this. That, I believe, is what is especially maddening to many observers – the knowledge that neither you nor anyone else from BP will spend so much as a day behind bars. Yes, I know there are possible criminal charges pending. You know as well as I do that BP’s pool of attorneys runs too deep for anything of substance ever to come of those. The worst the company is looking at are a few hefty fines and maybe some probationary sanctions.

Fortunately, I believe I have identified an acceptable middle ground between state-sponsored execution and getting off scot-free. Mr. Hayward, the most honorable action you could take now is to commit seppuku. I am not the first to suggest this course of action for you and your associates, but as the situation has developed, it seems more and more like the only satisfactory solution. So long as you continue to draw breath, your existence will stand as a constant reminder to Gulf Coast residents that the people who destroyed their way of life are still out there moving freely and making money. Even if you were to somehow end up in the prison cell you so richly deserve, you would still be a living, breathing, taxpayer-subsidized symbol of the arrogance and negligence that has savaged us in more ways than we can count.

So seppuku it is. It needn’t be an ignominious thing. In fact, it could be a borderline heroic acknowledgment of your sins against humanity and nature. Like Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this: that a man lay down his life for his friends.” If you are truly a friend to the people who have dedicated their lives and labors to making you and your cronies obscenely wealthy, then I would advise you to rent The Godfather Part II and take some tips from the final conversation between Tom Hagen and Frankie Five Angels. Or, if you really want to make your contrition known to the world, you might read up on the very public demise of State Senator Budd Dwyer of Pennsylvania. Either way, your passing would be a symbolic act above all other symbolic acts.

I suppose there might be one other way for you to redeem yourself and begin the healing process on the Gulf Coast. You could liquidate that golden parachute BP so generously strapped across your shoulders, withdraw all the contents of the numerous bank accounts you no doubt hold and dedicate that money exclusively to the oil spill clean-up and restoration effort. You could then call in favors from your presumably extensive network of expert colleagues in the energy industry and devote yourself wholly to developing clean, sustainable alternative fuel sources that will help to eliminate future spills like the ones currently destroying Louisiana, Nigeria, Michigan and so many other places around the globe.

Oh, but who am I kidding? That scenario is much too far-fetched. No, best to stick with the original plan. Please, Mr. Hayward, for the good of yourself and everyone involved, fall on your sword, as literally and as quickly as possible.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Four songs to break a Hipster Dad’s heart

Disclaimer: My pal Doc Waffles recently congratulated me on not letting fatherhood push me into "going all Mitch Albom" with my writing. Apologies to the Doc, but this column is where I let my inner Albom get the better of me. If you have a low tolerance for sentimentality, I suggest you skip this one. I'll be back to our regularly scheduled irreverence soon enough.

I knew going into fatherhood that a lot of my entertainment options would change. I wouldn’t be attending nighttime concerts with any regularity for quite some time, for instance, and I’d have to wait for the baby to fall asleep to pop in those Breaking Bad DVDs. But I didn’t expect just how much impact having a kid would have on the way I hear certain songs.

For some reason, I’ve never been especially bothered by songs about children dying. I think that’s just too big a concept and too far-removed from anything in my own experience to make a real impact on me. That hasn’t changed since I’ve had a child of my own. I can still listen to Violent Femmes’ “Country Death Song” or The Decemberists’ “The Rake’s Song” – both sung from the perspective of a father who murders his own kids – and regard them as appropriately macabre murder ballads.

No, what really get me are songs about kids living, or to put it more accurately, songs about kids aging. I’m not talking about obvious tear-jerkers like “Cat’s in the Cradle” or “Puff the Magic Dragon.” Those songs are a bit too on-the-nose and preachy to really grab me. The ones that knock me for a loop take a subtler, more lived-in approach that makes me think the songwriters have really been there. That type of song has always done a number on me, but now that I have a son of my own, they’ve become downright hard to listen to. Here are a few that consistently put a lump in my throat.

Joni Mitchell – “The Circle Game”

I can’t always take a whole lot of Joni Mitchell in one sitting, but I’m an unabashed devotee of her Ladies of the Canyon album. Even amongst all the stellar songwriting on display there, “The Circle Game” stands out as a spot-on, only slightly sentimental assessment of a child growing into manhood. Mitchell captures the wide-eyed wonder of growing up while avoiding the fetishization of childhood that tainted much of her contemporaries’ work. Joni remembers that terror and frustration (“Words like, ‘When you’re older’ must appease him / And promises of someday make his dreams”) are huge parts of being too young to fend for oneself.

The part that slays me, though, is one line in the last verse: “So the years spin by and now the boy is twenty / Though his dreams have lost some grandeur coming true.” That hits awfully close to home. I’ve never dealt well with the way advancing years force us to sacrifice and alter our dearly held dreams. Sometimes that’s a good thing – at 20, for instance, I was just starting to get the idea that the world wasn’t going to fall at my feet and vault me into the pantheon of Great American Writers unless I put in some years of hard, thankless work. Now that I’m 31 with more than a decade of writerly labor under my belt, I’m still clinging to my dream of fame and prestige, but it becomes a little harder to believe in with each passing year.

It terrifies me to think that my son will have to abandon his dreams one day. For the moment, it’s not a big concern. His current dreams seem to involve propelling himself forward rather than back, getting a hold of his mom’s Nalgene water bottle for gumming purposes and maybe being as tall as he is when I carry him on my shoulders. Soon enough, though, he’ll be able to assess the world and decide what he wants from it. I truly hope that he will be able to realize the dreams that matter most to him, but deep in my heart I know that few people ever do.

Neil Young – “My Boy”

(Sorry for the cover - Neil is pretty touchy about his videos being shared online)

Oh man, I have a long emotional history with this one. It’s from Young’s underrated country record Old Ways, an album I received as a Christmas gift from my dad when I was 15. My dad’s not really one for picking out presents, so when he does, it usually means the gift is something personal that he knew the recipient would specifically appreciate. My copy of Old Ways was dubbed from his friend’s record collection onto the B-side of a cassette tape, with Van Morrison’s Moondance occupying the A-side. Some might think giving a dub as a gift rather chintzy, but in my estimation the hand-lettered cassette case and the time dedicated to picking a record and playing it through as it recorded just gave it all the more sentimental value.

But on to the song itself. The summer after my freshman year of college, my dad and I took a road trip in his Toyota Camry station wagon to visit some friends in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. Somewhere in the middle of the Nebraska flatlands, I popped Old Ways into the cassette deck. We’d hit that point in every long drive where chit-chat fades away into hazy silence when “My Boy” came on the stereo. We sat there quietly, staring out on the vast nothingness of rural Nebraska, listening to Neil Young wistfully asking his son why he was growing up so fast. I couldn’t help but wonder if my dad was feeling something similar, taking a cross-country trip with a young man who used to be his little boy.

To me, that sounds like a realization both painful and wonderful, terms that seem to appear in conjunction an awful lot in the course of fatherhood. As tough as I know it will be to let go of my son when the time comes, I hope I’ll at least have been able to pass a few totems of art and beauty along to him like my dad did with Old Ways.

Ben Folds – “Still Fighting It”

Folds’ Rockin’ the Suburbs was one of the first albums I ever reviewed, way back when I was a lowly intern at New Orleans’ Where Y’at magazine. It was a positive review overall, but I was underwhelmed by a few songs. I specifically singled out “Still Fighting It” for trafficking in what my 22-year-old self thought to be trite, maudlin observations about the nature of aging.

What a difference nine years makes. Oh, and a baby. The baby makes a fair bit of difference too. Listening to “Still Fighting It” now, I hear the song for what it really is: a young father sending his child an advance apology for the painful realities of existence and his own failings as a human being. The former is, of course, something we can’t do much about. The latter, though, is something I imagine to be a near-universal source of fear for parents.

I know it is for me. Since my son has been born, I’ve been on a personal improvement campaign. I’ve improved my diet, committed myself to working out consistently and re-energized my dedication to making art. I’ve never been much of a sleeper, but these days I’m clocking more hours of consciousness than ever as I work my day job, keep myself in shape, try to complete a novel, shop around old writing to publishers and, most importantly, take care of my baby. The way I see it, I’ve been in a holding pattern for too long. Now I’m in a race against time. I only have so long to make myself into someone my son can look upon with genuine pride and awe. I want him to be able to tell his little playground buddies, "My dad writes books!" The last thing I ever want is to have to look him in the eye and say, like Folds’ narrator, “You’re so much like me / I’m sorry.”

Low – “In Metal”

Even six months into his existence, I’m amazed at how quickly my own son is, to quote Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes, “speeding forward through the plate glass of maturing selves.” As much as I love seeing him grow and develop, part of me wants to cling to his infancy and not let go. Sometimes when I’m holding him in my arms, I consider the fact that I’ll only be able to do this for a very limited period of time. When my wife and I put him to bed each night, I often ponder that the boy we’re laying down will be gone in the morning, replaced by a noticeably older, larger, more self-sufficient edition. He’s already so much bigger than he was just a few weeks ago. The day is fast approaching when he’ll be so big that I’ll never be able to cradle him again. That breaks my heart beyond belief.

And so I am totally with Mimi Parker when she sings this beautiful, wrenching ode to the tininess of babyhood. The tears come right to the surface every single time I hear “Partly hate to see you grow / And just like your baby shoes / Wish I could keep your little body / In metal.” I can’t wait to see what he’ll become, but I know I’ll always miss what he is right now. And right now. And right now.

- Ira Brooker

Saturday, June 5, 2010

"Lou Reed's Concert in the Bark" or "Old dogs, Lou tricks"


To: Mr. Lou Reed

From: Mr. Ira Brooker

Re: Concert for Dogs

Dear Lou,

You don’t owe me anything. In fact, with all of the joy and enrichment your work has added to my life, I probably owe you even more than the hundreds of dollars I’ve spent on your albums over the years. I just want you to know that I’m not speaking as some kind of falsely entitled fanboy here. No, I’m announcing this as a dedicated fan who cares deeply about your art and your vision: I give up.

I give up, Lou. Not on you or your music; quite the contrary, actually. What I’m giving up on is hoping that you’ll ever conform to my expectations. I understand that you’re not entirely satisfied with your status as a music icon, that you need to identify yourself as a paragon of artistic versatility. That means different things to different people. Tony Bennett, for instance, still croons with the best of them while also finding satisfaction in painting pretty good portraits of his celebrity cronies. Russell Crowe, Juliette Lewis, Billy Bob Thornton and at least a dozen other big-name actors fill the space between gigs by making mediocre music. And I won’t even get into the baffling sphere of celebrity fragrances.

But you’ve always been far too hip to take that easy a route, no matter how much Middle America yearns to smell like Lou Reed. When you expand your horizons, you push them in directions nobody else had on their radars. The past decade or so has seen you dabbling in theater, photography, Eastern meditation, literary myth-building and even mobile phone app-building. You’ve done a little bit of pretty much everything, except, of course, record a new album.

And now I hear that your latest venture is a
concert for dogs. Australian dogs, at that. There was a time not too long ago when this would have upset me, both as a music fan and as a dog hater. I’d have been on the internet within minutes voicing my displeasure, wondering why you’re wasting your time with silly, pretentious art stunts rather than heading into the studio to wash the taste of The Raven out of my mouth. But that was then, and now I’m more inclined to step back, assess the situation and give you a heartfelt, “Huh.”

I mean, sure, there are things I’d rather see you do than spend 20 minutes playing inaudible notes for an audience more interested in Gravy Train than “Sweet Jane.” I’d rather see you do pretty much anything else, really. But I have to admit there’s a certain Andy Warhol/Laurie Anderson vibe to this thing, which makes sense, obviously. At this point, I’ve sat through so much of your weirdness that I’m content to chalk this up to just Lou being Lou. I can't do much more than smile, nod and count myself fortunate when you deign to lay down a track with Gorillaz or The Killers. If and when you decide to go back to doing what you do best, I’ll be waiting with open ears.

And if you ever release this dog concert dealie on CD, I’ll go right out and buy it like the tunnel-vision acolyte I am. I can’t say I feel good about that, but that’s my problem, not yours.

Hang tough,


Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Mostly tha Voice: On Guru, "Hard to Earn" and the Passion of my Little Brother

Being a hip-hop fan was no easy task in the mid-1990s Brooker household. Like a lot of parents of the era, my folks were extremely wary of this profane and relatively new genre. Relentless media scaremongering about rappers’ glorification of drugs, violence and misogyny led them to institute a fairly strict censorship policy: Christian rappers like Michael Peace were embraced, all-audiences acts like Arrested Development and MC Hammer were grudgingly tolerated, and anything meriting the infamous Parental Advisory sticker was outright banned. In hindsight, I’ll admit that they were partially right to worry – Too $hort and Eazy-E probably weren’t appropriate listening material for middle school kids – but that didn’t dissuade my younger brother in his quest to become the biggest hip-hop head in Sparta, Wisconsin.

Gang Starr’s Hard to Earn was the first hardcore rap album to slip under the radar. My then 13-year-old brother used some of his birthday money to buy it on cassette at Musicland during a family outing to Valley View Mall in La Crosse. Thus began an extended exercise in musical obfuscation. The album sleeve and its telltale advisory sticker quickly became kindling for our potbelly wood stove. In their place, my brother fashioned a homemade sleeve with a blank sheet of yellow legal paper and a Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers playing card. Realizing that the very name “Gang Starr” would be a red flag, he scraped the ink off of the cassette itself, obliterating the track listings and artist information. He then stashed the album in the back of his tape box and only listened to it on his headphones or while riding in my car.

Yet somehow our parents sussed out the offending tape and promptly confiscated it. Undaunted, my brother snatched it back one day when they were out. By now he’d started building a fairly sizable hip-hop collection on the sly. He kept it under wraps O.G. style, stashing any CDs or tapes that might be deemed questionable in a beaten-up guitar case he’d inherited from our grandpa. My folks made several more attempts at shutting him down, but his dedication to hip-hop culture eventually won out. By the time he graduated high school, my brother’s bedroom walls were plastered with magazine clippings of Redman, Canibus, Brotha Lynch Hung and other hip-hop heroes, with his own hand-painted portrait of Ol’ Dirty Bastard as a centerpiece. That old copy of Hard to Earn still maintained a prominent place in his music collection, though by now it had been played so many times that the cassette had to be held together with masking tape.

I relate this story to demonstrate the kind of passion Gang Starr and the late, great Guru could inspire in a pubescent white kid growing up in backwoods Wisconsin. Hard to Earn was a perfect musical gateway drug for my little brother and, to a somewhat lesser extent, for me. There was something about the combination of Guru’s literate, monotone flow and DJ Premier’s jazz-soaked production that made Gang Starr slightly less intimidating than a lot of other rap groups. I can see how my parents would have been put off by the profanity and references to drugs and violence (though all were quite mild by general hip-hop standards), but under that gritty surface I found a thoughtful, soulful work of art that resonated on a surprisingly universal level.

I was especially fascinated by “The Planet,” a song recounting Guru’s youthful move from Boston to Brooklyn and his early struggles breaking into the rap game. Guru eschews the angst and melodrama common to so many “back in the day” tracks (i.e., Coolio’s “I Remember,” Ghostface’s “All That I Got Is You”), instead painting a picture of that odd blend of exhilaration, desperation and boredom that comes with being young and on your own for the first time. I consider the song a masterpiece of subtlety, filled with evocative, identifiable images (“Kissed my mother / Gave my pops a pound / Then he hugged me / Then he turned around”). That’s pretty much how I regard the whole of Hard to Earn and the Gang Starr canon in general. Guru and Premier simmered while other hip-hoppers boiled, creating a sound that struck a delicate balance between intensity and detachment. It was a style without precedent at the time, and one that’s never been equaled since.

That’s why Guru's untimely passing earlier this week hit me harder than celebrity deaths usually do. I celebrate the entire Gang Starr catalog, as well as Guru’s rather daring Jazzmatazz side project, but it’s Hard to Earn that earned him a place in my heart, both for the brilliance of the music and for my memories of the passion it inspired in my little brother.

R.I.P. and F.A.L.A. to a real MC.

Friday, March 19, 2010

“Jughead Jones: Superhero” or “Mr. Jones and me look into the future”

I’ve read a lot of articles trying to explain the endless appeal of superhero comics. Hardcore comics fans frequently cite lonely or traumatic childhoods that left them feeling largely powerless. They claim to have been comforted by the idea of super-powered beings who could cast off the bonds of everyday life and fight the forces of evil on their own terms. Every outsider group seemed to have a tailor-made hero: science nerds had Spider-Man, kids who’d lost loved ones had Batman, gay teens had the X-Men, rage-filled youngsters had The Hulk, straight-up sociopaths had The Punisher and so on. In the most overt instance, Captain Marvel’s secret identity was Billy Batson, a scrawny, handicapped child who could transform himself into an all-powerful ├╝ber-man.

I liked superhero comics quite a lot when I was a lad, but I can’t say they ever connected with me on exactly that level. I dug Spider-Man because he cracked wise, slung webs and had a cool-looking costume. Oh sure, Peter Parker’s geeky background held a certain appeal for a bookworm like me, but I was grounded enough to leave his adventures mostly on the printed page. That isn’t to say that I never had a comic book role model. It’s just that my hero was of the non-super variety.

For me, Jughead Jones occupied the role that Daredevil and The Flash filled for other kids. As I’ve mentioned before, I was and am a huge fan of Archie comics. I found the antics and adventures of the denizens of Riverdale comforting and familiar, though I started reading their stories when I was much younger than the teenage protagonists. Even so, I probably would have quickly outgrown Archie and the gang if it wasn’t for Jughead.

There’s really nothing all that remarkable about the students of Riverdale High. From Archie’s clumsy amorousness to Reggie’s status-seeking misanthropy to Veronica’s mindless opulence to Betty’s apple-pie goodness, the main cast is a pretty bourgeois bunch. The tertiary teens who hang around the core group aren’t much better, as each is mostly defined by a trademark trait or two. Dilton is super smart, Moose is dumb and jealous, Big Ethel is ugly and infatuated, Chuck is a jock (and later an artist, for sensitivity’s sake), etc. None of that detracted from my enjoyment – in fact, the easy characterizations have always been a big part of Archie’s comfort factor – but it was Mr. Jones who really cemented my love of the medium.

Much like my peers and their superheroes, I saw in Jughead a projection of what I might be in an idealized fantasy world. In reality, I was a nerdy little kid growing up in the backwoods of Western Wisconsin. I wasn’t exactly ostracized at my tiny country school – with only five boys in my grade, there wasn’t much room for outcasts – but my bookish ways and vaguely hippie upbringing placed me about as far on the outskirts as possible. I recognized early on that I was doomed to be the “weird kid” in most social settings. That might have been a major downer if I hadn’t had Jughead Jones’ example to follow.

Along with fellow oddballs Gonzo the Great and J. Wellington Wimpy, Jughead (especially as depicted by the amazing writer-artist team of Frank Doyle and Samm Schwartz) taught me that weird could be OK. More than that, weird could be cool. Alone amongst Riverdalians, Jughead ignored the passing trends and teenage silliness that consumed his classmates, opting instead to float around the periphery of the high school experience. To paraphrase Sterling Hayden in Dr. Strangelove, he did not avoid his classmates, but he did deny them his essence. He indulged in bizarre hobbies, ignored the constructs of fashion, refused to be drawn into the quagmire of the dating scene and generally marched to his own beat. Jughead was not without his failings, sloth and gluttony being his deadly sins of choice, but even these became more like charming quirks when paired with his personality.

Despite his contrary nature and odd predilections, Jughead was not the outcast one might suppose. As a matter of fact, he was a fairly popular kid who might even be called a local institution. Sure, Reggie and Veronica needled him from time to time, but only because Jughead was one of the few who was neither impressed with nor intimidated by their wealth and prowess. Ironically, his very refusal to seek the approval of his peer group made him one of the best-liked people in town.

That struck a resonant chord with my adolescent self. As I sprawled on my parents’ bed, paging through my stack of Double Digests for the umpteenth time, I imagined myself growing into that same kind of cool, confident teenager. I dreamed of a day when my artistic nature and offbeat sensibilities would merit more than just a teacher’s scrawled “Very creative!” in the margin of a fourth grade essay. If I just played it cool and embraced my inborn weirdness without flaunting it, I figured I could make it through the minefield of high school relatively unscathed.

And you know something? I think it worked. I know that trying to gauge one’s own high school popularity is a fool’s game, but I believe I emerged from four years at Sparta Senior High with a solid Jugheadian reputation – an odd but entertaining guy who was at least well-liked enough to be voted graduation speaker for the class of ’97. Maybe that doesn’t sound like the most impressive accomplishment, but Jughead also taught me to keep my fantasy within the realm of possibility. My dreams may not have been as lofty as those of my superhero-obsessed brethren, but I guarantee I came a lot closer to living the life of Jughead Jones than they ever did to leaping tall buildings in a single bound.

Note: As evidence of my ongoing obsession, pictured above is the rear wall of my home office, complete with hundreds of Archie comics, 12-inch Archie and Jughead dolls, a portrait of Jughead painted by my sister-in-law Diana, and my new prize possession, Samm Schwartz’s original artwork for my all-time favorite Jughead story, 1983's Crowning Glory (frame pending).

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Meditations on Lou Reed’s “Hudson River Wind Meditations”

I’m writing this on Lou Reed’s 68th birthday. As I’ve discussed before, this has long been an important personal holiday for me. For more than 15 years, I’ve celebrated Lou surviving another spin of the globe by buying one of his albums. You might think I’d eventually run out of purchasing options, but a steady stream of mediocre live albums and back catalog reissues have kept me rolling thus far. Up until this year, though, there was one Lou Reed album I resisted: 2007’s Hudson River Wind Meditations.

It might seem odd to a modern observer that one of rock music’s preeminent provocateurs would release an entire album of instrumentals intended as backing music for t’ai chi exercises, but those were different times back in the mid-Oughts. The Chi-sploitation boom was in full effect. Everywhere you looked, the entertainment industry was pumping up the hedonistic T’ai Chi Lifestyle, with all the cheap thrills and crazy risks entailed by moving very slowly in a public space. One might have hoped that a genuine artiste like Lou would have had the integrity to resist cashing in on that kind of glitzy trend, but the man’s not made of stone.

All kidding aside, I can’t fault Lou Reed for dedicating his musical talents to something he’s truly passionate about. I’ve seen a number of interviews in which Lou professes his love for the discipline and philosophy of t’ai chi, even going so far as to say it saved his life. That’s how I eventually convinced myself to set aside my doubts and lay down ten bucks for Hudson River Wind Meditations. I figured that this project means a lot to Lou Reed, and Lou Reed means a lot to me, so I may as well give it a go.

Now that I’ve listened to the album in its entirety, I’m beginning to suspect that Lou Reed and I are very different people. It’s not that the appeal of t’ai chi is entirely lost on me. The demonstrations I’ve seen make it look very peaceful, and I admire the kind of mental focus that must go into keeping one’s movements so studiously controlled. But if the music on Hudson River Wind Meditations is an accurate indication of the t’ai chi experience, I think I’ll stay on the sidelines.

The opening track, “Move Your Heart,” is not much more than a gentle sonic pulse. As such, it’s quite soothing. It definitely makes for a few minutes of pleasant listening. Problem is, it goes on for more than a few minutes – nearly thirty, in fact, with the only changes being barely perceptible shifts in tone. Still, it accomplishes its goal of relaxation, creating an effect similar to waves rolling in on a beach. I can see how it would lend itself to a slow-moving martial art, but it ain’t quite my cup of tea.

The title of the free-form second track, “Find Your Note,” seems like a dare. I can find plenty of notes in it, but no two of them seem to belong together.
Burbling about with a lot of meandering hums and high-pitched droning, this thing is slow and formless enough to make John Cage sound like Joey Ramone. Musically, it bears a fair resemblance to Lou’s notorious Metal Machine Music, but I like that recording much better. I think of Metal Machine Music like a piece of abstract art: spend a little time with it, and ideas begin to emerge from the chaos, revealing different things to different people. I don’t get that vibe from “Find Your Note.” Instead, it walks a fine line between soothing white noise and headache-inducing squall. I believe I’d have to abandon any workout with this as the soundtrack for fear of full-on madness. Lou closes out the proceedings with one track that’s mostly the sound of blowing wind and another reprising the undulations of “Move Your Heart,” in case the first 30 minutes left us hungry for more.

Look, I understand that I’m not the target audience for this album. I don’t do t’ai chi, so I don’t know if there’s some kind of psychic relevance that’s just going over my head. For all I know, Lou Reed has crafted the definitive masterpiece of the genre. So apologies to any practitioners of the slow arts who might take offense; I’m sure Hudson River Wind Meditations will continue to be a boon to your maneuvers for years to come.

As for me, I’m tucking it in the Oddball File alongside Lou's weird stabs at stand-up comedy and literary theater. They may not generate a lot of listens, but at least they're evidence of an artist who's still trying new, very peculiar things five decades into his career.

Happy birthday, Lou, and long may you meditate.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Johnny Cash: Torturer – “Five Minutes to Live” and the Maniac in Black

Back in the days before at-home internet access was the standard and IMDb topped every cinephile’s bookmarks list, I was an avid user of the Videohound Golden Movie Retriever, an annually published compendium of films available for home video viewing. As a voracious young movie buff and aspiring critic, I’d spend entire evenings poring over and memorizing the casts, directors and capsule descriptions of thousands of films. I studied the 1998 edition harder than I ever did any schoolbook. Eventually, I could have my pal Joel flip to any page and call out a random title, and 90% of the time I could tell him the plot and principal cast.

That encyclopedic knowledge came in handy when I browsed the racks at my local video store, but it also made me realize of the shop’s limitations. Videohound clued me in to dozens of intriguing-sounding titles that were simply unavailable in most of the outlets I frequented. Those obscure objects of desire ranged from trash like The Rats are Coming! The Werewolves are Here! to artsy fare like Alex in Wonderland to the mellifluously titled Spaghetti Western You’re Jinxed, Friend. You’ve Met Sacramento.

One forgotten film loomed above the rest on my must-see list, a low-budget crime flick from 1961 called Door-to-Door Maniac. That’s an indisputably great title, but that wasn’t the primary reason I wanted to track it down. That honor went to the actor playing the titular role: none other than the great Johnny Cash. The title, the star and Videohound’s damning bone-and-a-half rating made me believe that this was a movie I needed to see forthwith. Back in 1998, however, that was easier said than done.

Twelve years later, I finally fished a copy of Door-to-Door Maniac (presented under its less exciting, if more accurate, original title of Five Minutes to Live) out of the Cult Films section at my local Cheapo Discs. I don’t generally buy movies sight-unseen, but I reckoned I couldn’t really go wrong for eight bucks. I reckoned right.

On its surface, Five Minutes to Live is a grimy but not especially remarkable movie. It’s the story of the Wilsons, a bland small-town family with a few skeletons in the closet. Dad (Donald Woods) is prone to weekday hangovers and is having what looks to be an exceptionally chaste affair with a matronly neighbor. Mom (Cay Forrester, who also wrote the screenplay) buries her discontent under a blanket of passive-aggressive over-involvement with her women’s club. Junior (Ron Howard) channels his rage into a shrill series of precocious wisecracks and plots to one day torment humanity by making a string of grotesque, soulless, mega-budget movies.

These folks are so relentlessly unpleasant that it’s much easier to root for the purported villains, a smooth talker named Fred Dorella (Vic Tayback, looking especially large-faced) and a psychotic fugitive from New Jersey (!) called Johnny Cabot (Mr. Cash). Dorella has hatched a plan to knock over the local bank without pulling a stick-up: Cabot worms his way into the Wilson house and holds Mrs. Wilson hostage. Meanwhile, Dorella calmly orders her bank vice president husband to hand over $70,000 or his wife has five minutes to live. (Hey, that’s the name of the show!)

What follows is sort of an early ‘60s take on the techno thriller, with the perils and foibles of person-to-person calling at the center. As robbers, solicitors and nosy neighbors play a deadly game of phone tag, Cabot entertains himself by smashing Mrs. Wilson’s precious knick-knacks and torturing her emotionally, physically and possibly even sexually (the latter is only implied – this is a sleazy movie, sure, but it’s still 1961). Ultimately, it’s not a perfect B-movie – the ending is a cop-out that lets Dad off way too easy – but it’s sure as hell a memorable one.

It’s the Cabot character and Cash’s performance that establish Five Minutes to Live as something special. Forrester’s screenplay is surprisingly slimy, especially coming from a female writer of her time. It doesn’t try to pawn off a neutered, watered-down villain like many products of the era would. Within the first ten minutes, we see Cabot machine-gun a cop and shoot an unarmed woman in cold blood. This is a violent, remorseless and sadistic guy, and Johnny Cash is fully up to the part.

The cinematic vaults of the '50s and '60s are lousy with half-assed vanity projects for the era's pop stars, but this part bears little resemblance to Mel Torme’s frog-faced hood in Girls' Town or Roy Orbison's weirdness in The Fastest Guitar Alive. Sure, Cash is saddled with singing a tie-in title tune, but he makes it into a bad-ass meditation on evil and existence. In several chilling scenes, he taunts Mrs. Wilson with the song, looming close, strumming softly and reminding her she’s down to her last five minutes. It’s a brutal, muscular performance that sometimes goes over the top, but never egregiously so. There’s every reason to think it could have been a stepping stone to a long career of playing celluloid heavies for the Man in Black, had he chosen to take that route.

So how come nobody’s heard of this movie? It’s hard to say. My best guess is that Cash wasn’t particularly proud of Five Minutes to Live, not because of his performance, but because of who he was at the time. When Johnny Cash died in 2003, the few retrospectives that even mentioned his acting career focused on his '70s and '80s output, which ranged from half-respectable Westerns to made-for-TV garbage. In those later films (not to mention his prime-time variety show), a clean-and-sober Cash played variations on his somewhat tongue-in-cheek ‘70s “outlaw” persona. Five Minutes to Live, on the other hand, captured him at his pill-addled worst. The Johnny Cash of 1961 was a man of many demons, and they’re all right there on the screen. Later on, Rick Rubin helped him embrace his innate darkness while still walking the line, but it’s not too shocking that Cash would prefer that this documentation of his ugliest days stay buried.

Ordinarily, I’m all in favor of respecting a dead man’s wishes. In this case, though, the ongoing obscurity of Five Minutes to Live does a disservice to lovers of Johnny Cash and trash cinema. This movie needs to become a full-on cult classic post-haste. I encourage you to spread the word. After all, not everyone has time to sit around memorizing Videohound guides.

You can watch the entirety of Five Minutes to Live right here. You should do so. Right now. Come on. It isn’t very long.