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.