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Stan Lee is gone, and even if I wasn’t late to the game, I don’t know what I could say that hasn't already been said.

My own experience is similar to others of my generation – by the time I started reading superhero comics, Stan Lee wasn’t writing so much anymore, and pretty much all of his creations had been taken over by other writers. But I knew who Stan Lee was via the Marvel editorial pages – “Stan’s Soapbox”, et cetera – and I was aware that he was the guy who had thought up these characters. I wasn’t a fan of all of them, but I did like Spiderman, the Hulk and X-Men, among others.

I’m pretty sure it’s no coincidence that these were the characters that seemed to struggle with an inability to fit into society for various reasons. A lot has been written about how Stan’s greatest contribution to comics was adding a layer of human complexity to the Marvel universe – just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean people will like you or your life will be better. I don’t know if I consciously thought of that while reading Spiderman or Hulk, but it was definitely core to the X-Men comics.

Obviously, not everything he did was great (Nightcat comes to mind – and that Backstreet Boys cartoon). On the other hand, I admired his ability to come up with character ideas almost on the fly – many wouldn't work, but his ethos seemed to be that no idea is too outrageous or outlandish, because who knows, it might actually work.

So yeah, I think he’s earned his rep as one of the greatest visionaries of comics.

To be sure, he had his critics. Which brings me to Bill Maher and his silly op-ed about how it’s somehow Stan Lee’s fault that Trump is president because comic books make you stupid. Or something.

I can’t add much to what Neil Gaiman has already said in one tweet – Maher is clearly trolling with a very old argument that anti-comics people have used for decades, so his argument is not only invalid, it's not even original.

Also, it’s hard to take Maher (who presumably only reads intellectual books) seriously when he goes around claiming that vaccines cause autism.

And so much for Bill Maher.

Nuff said,

This is dF
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John McCain left us last month. I’ve been preoccupied with other things, but I did have a few comments.

1. Personally, I’ve always had respect for him. Which is not to say I’ve always agreed with him, or that he’s always made good choices (see: Sarah Palin). But he came across to me as someone who didn’t just follow the bullet points – he actually put some thought into the issue at hand, and would actually take the time to listen to your views and respond to them. Which is preferable to the hyperpartisan batshit nonsense that the rest of his party has embraced. Sure, his maverick reputation was overstated and his “Straight Talk Express” was mostly a gimmick. But there was a certain amount of truth behind both.

Admittedly, my assessment of McCain’s politics has to do with the fact that I’m not a party guy per se, and I’ve always figured that if you’re pissing off the extreme hardline wings of both parties, yr probably doing something right. McCain did that, and that’s fine by me.

2. That’s why I felt in 2000 that if he had managed to win the nomination and the presidency I would have been okay with it. My philosophy of POTUS elections has generally been that if my preferred candidate doesn’t win, the winner should ideally be someone who isn’t too far from the center and can at least try to be a unifying figure and work with the opposition (assuming the opposition is willing to do likewise). I think McCain would have been such a POTUS. He certainly would have been better than the one we ended up with in 2000.

3. That said, I was less sanguine about a McCain presidency in 2008 – partly because he admitted having never sent an email (which I seriously felt ought to be a basic requirement to be POTUS in the 21st Century), and partly due to his running mate.

Some people have argued that we basically have McCain to thank for Trump because he gave Sarah Palin a national platform to demonstrate that what the conservative base really wanted in a POTUS was a clueless, xenophobic demagogue whose sole qualifications for office were blatant political incorrectness and insulting liberals. But I don’t think it’s fair to pin that on McCain – the Tea Party/MAGA base was already there, as was Fox News, the Koch Brothers and Breitbart, etc, and the GOP had been quietly courting them for years. Given all the Obama conspiracy theories and racist memes already in circulation during the 2008 campaign, I think the GOP would be exactly where it is right now, sooner or later, with or without Palin as poster girl.

4. Granted, selecting Palin wasn’t exactly good judgment on McCain’s part (which he would later admit). On the other hand, when McCain was handed a golden opportunity to exploit conservative xenophobia over Obama’s heritage, he refused. And he got booed for it, if memory serves. But he didn’t change his answer even when he saw it was backfiring. The same can’t be said for most of the rest of the GOP. So I have to give him points for that.

5. As an aside, it’s interesting in retrospect to note that one of the main arguments against voting for McCain in 2008 – namely his age, which meant that Sarah Palin was “one heartbeat away from the presidency” (translation: if McCain dies in office she gets to run the country) – turned out to be unfounded. Turns out McCain would have lived long enough to serve two full terms. So it goes.

Of course, we can never know that for sure, and given the pressures of the job, his health might not have held up as long as it did. I’m just saying.

6. This article in The Guardian is a pretty good overview of McCain’s many personal and political contradictions. Put simply, he was a complex person and he leaves behind a complex legacy that doesn't fit into anyone’s oversimplified partisan socio-political litmus test. He did good things, he did bad things, and he did neither consistently, but he did most of them out of what seemed to be a genuine desire to change things for the better. And if it wasn’t genuine, he was extremely good at faking it.

7. As for his funeral, it says a lot that he received such a huge send-off. And yes, it also says a lot that Trump wasn’t invited (at McCain’s own behest), and why should he be, all things considered?

And as for Meghan McCain’s dig at Trump, I think she’s more than entitled. 

Half-staffed,

This is dF
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Art Bell is gone, which means finally he may finally find the answers he was looking for.

If you don’t know, Bell was the late-night talk radio host of Coast To Coast AM, in which he and his guests and callers explored UFOs, aliens, Bigfoot, various supernatural and paranormal phenomena, and government cover-ups of all the above. Bell was X Files before X Files was cool.

When I worked at a news-talk radio station in the mid-90s, we ran the first couple of hours of his show before sign-off. And having grown up at a time when some of the big best sellers were written by Erich von Daniken, Charles Berlitz and Hal Lindsey – and where TV was running programs like Kolchak: The Night Stalker and Project UFO – I had a soft spot for Bell’s subject matter. Granted I don’t believe in conspiracy theories, but I admit I'm fascinated with the theories themselves. And frankly, compared to the political shows we ran in the afternoon, Bell was by far the sanest person in our line-up.

The secret, I think, was that he was very open minded and willing to let callers talk about all kinds of weird things, but he also knew when to reign them in or push back when even their own internal logic started to unravel. He could generally tell when people really believed what they were saying and when they were making it up as they went along, and he wasn’t afraid to call them out on it – yet he did it in a calm and reasonable way. He didn’t yell at or insult anyone – at least not while I was listening. Maybe he did in later years, but from what I understand he had the same style from beginning to end.

Which isn’t to say that everything he said was true. But he could at least make it sound plausible, more often than not.

Of course, some people blame Bell for not only convincing people that conspiracy theories and UFOs are real, but laying the groundwork for people like Alex Jones and the alt-right. Personally I don’t think that’s accurate or fair. People believed in UFOs and govt conspiracy theories long before Bell picked up a microphone. He gave them a voice and a platform, but the internet would have done that eventually anyway.

And in any case, conspiracy-theory radio really has its roots in the rise of rabid conservative talk shows in the early 90s. If you want to pin Alex Jones and alt-right batshit fact-free outrage radio on anyone, pin it on Rush Limbaugh. He pretty much invented both the format and the business model.

By comparison, I think Bell was relatively harmless, both in terms of the subject matter and the way he handled it. Again, I only listened to him from the early 90s to 1996, so I don’t know what his latter-year broadcasts were like, but at least during that time, Bell wasn’t a loud angry demagogue out to exploit populist anger exclusively in favor of a specific political party. He was more like a radio version of Charles Fort, keen to explore the unknown and unexplained, and convinced that the world is weirder than we think and – to a coin a phrase – the truth is out there.

I want to believe,

This is dF

THE FALLEN

Feb. 1st, 2018 05:57 pm
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I found out yesterday that Mark E Smith passed away last week.

It probably says a lot that I somehow totally missed this on my various social media feeds – hardly anyone seemed to notice outside of the UK. Which I guess makes sense because The Fall were never more than a minor cult sensation in the US – you either heard them on college radio or you didn’t hear them at all. Certainly that was how I found out about them – and that wasn’t until 1994 while I was working in a college radio station.

Anyway, point being, Smith wasn’t a household name in America, so of course it's no surprise that most stateside media outlets apart from say Rolling Stone or Pitchfork didn't think it was worth mentioning. I think even Grant Hart’s death got more coverage. He didn't even make the Grammys "In Memorium" section (though I suspect Smith would probably see humor in this – and to be fair, neither did Grant Hart, or Holger Czukay for that matter, which just goes to show how relevant The Grammys are to music).

It might be as well – Smith wasn’t exactly a loveable guy, and his musical output was uncompromising, snarling batshit poetry that, let’s admit, probably made sense only to him.

And yet that was what was so great about The Fall – Smith may have been a savage musical dictator with alcohol/anger management issues who couldn't sing, but by God he somehow made it work – not every album, certainly, but more often than not. The final two band lineups from 2006 to last year ensured that The Fall went out on a high note – last year’s New Facts Emerge was one of my favorite new releases, and probably their best since Your Future Our Clutter.

Love him or hate him, he was a true original who truly believed in what he was doing – you could never mistake him for anyone else, and we’ll probably never hear the likes of him again.

FOR PROMOTONAL CONSIDERATION: At the risk of sounding like I’m trying to cash in, my band project Banana Deathmuffins once recorded a song that was sort of a Fall tribute, albeit an unintentional one. We were coming up with something to accompany a John Bonham drum track for a music project started by a friend, and it was only after we finished it that I realized we’d been unconsciously channeling our Fall influences.

Listen:



You may disagree, and fair enough. Anyway, it's fair to say we probably owe Mark a pint for this.

To say nothing of John Bonham.

Live from the Witch Trials,

This is dF
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If you read science-fiction/fantasy, or know/follow people on social media who do, you know that Ursula K Le Guin is gone.

The fan tributes have been pouring in, illustrating clearly just how big a deal she was as a writer and how influential her writing has been on multiple levels. (Jo Walton has written a fine tribute on that score.)

Consequently, I don’t feel qualified to write a tribute because I’m pretty late to the Le Guin game.

I only started reading her work a little over three years ago – four years, if you include my aborted attempt to start with The Dispossessed. So not only am I late, I couldn’t even get through the first two chapters of one of her most acclaimed books before giving up on it.

And I don’t have an explanation for either. I’ve seen Le Guin’s name on the sci-fi racks of bookstores for as long as I can remember, but somehow I wasn’t inspired to pick them up. I don’t think it was because of her gender – I’ve never consciously avoided female writers, and there were several from the genre that I liked even back in the 80s.

Looking back, I suppose maybe it was because I had some specific ideas of what kind of SF/F I liked when I was a teenager, and Le Guin’s take on SF/F didn’t fit in that particular window. And once I was old enough to expand that window, it had actually expanded way beyond genre fiction – so much so that I stopped reading SF/F for a long time because I felt it was too narrow and I wasn’t getting anything out of it. In retrospect, it seems obvious that my mindset was a lot narrower than the genre was.

Similarly, when I tried The Dispossessed the first time, I wasn’t mentally prepared for it, even as I approached it as a reader with comparatively broader horizons. That happens sometimes – I’ll try an author for the first time and it won’t click for whatever reason. Then I’ll try again later and it’s magic – it’s like, “Okay, I get it now.”

In this case, it turned out to be The Left Hand Of Darkness that was my gateway to Le Guin’s vision, and it absolutely blew me away. Several Le Guin books later (all of which I liked), I tried The Dispossessed again and it blew me away too.

And so it goes.

Most of the tributes I’ve read mention her Earthsea books as her greatest (or at least most popular) work. Personally I like her SF books more, if only because fantasy is a genre I lost a taste for a long time ago, but the Earthsea books are also good (or at least the first three – I haven’t read the rest yet, but I intend to).

So there’s another testament to her talent – she actually made me enjoy books in a genre I’m not that into.

(Speaking of Earthsea, here’s a fun fact: The person who finally convinced me to try Le Guin was the priest of my church – he’s a big fan of the Earthsea books and has cited them in his sermons to make a point. The irony that Le Guin was a solid atheist is not lost on me.)

I haven’t read that that many of her books to make any kind of informed comment. But I will say that based on what I have read, perhaps her greatest talent was bringing something new to the table. She didn’t stick to the genre tropes, and more often than not used them mainly for lumber to build something different, or at least to say something worth saying.

So I don’t have any stories about her being an influence or an in-depth familiarity with her entire body of work. What I can say is that she was an extraordinarily gifted writer who wrote a couple of the best books I’ve ever read, and who has yet to disappoint me. And one good thing about getting started on her late is all the books I’m looking forward to reading now. I’ve already ordered copies of The Lathe Of Heaven and the first three novels of the Hainish cycle to start with.

Better late than never,

This is dF
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You probably have heard that Charles Manson passed away.

Which is mainly worth blogging about for a couple of reasons: (1) I’d rather forgotten about him, and (2) Manson’s strange role in the pantheon of pop culture. At least for my generation.

To be clear, he was a dangerous lunatic who deserved to stay in jail until he died. Which he did. I remember that whenever he came up for parole, the TV media would do a bunch of stories about it and the general consensus was: of COURSE keep him locked up.

They would also do TV interviews with Manson, who was, among other things, what they call “good television”. His interviews were a mix of stand-up comedy and Dadaist performance art. Which is how Manson sort of imposed himself upon the pop culture landscape as the world’s most dangerously entertaining mass murderer.

At least for those of us either born after the Manson Family murders or too young to remember them. We knew all about it either from the book Helter Skelter or the TV movie based on it. We knew it was a true story, and yet it was presented in the narrative form we usually associate with fiction. And the story had all the hallmarks of a Hollywood thriller.

Which is why ultimately – and perhaps inevitably – we reduced Manson to a cartoon villain.

This song by legendary Nashville hardcore band Rednecks In Pain sums it up well.



Or, if you like, this Ben Stiller sketch.



Which is not to minimize the horror of the Manson murders. It’s just that for those of us who came of age after the 60s were over, it didn’t have the same kind of impact that it did on people who were, say, high-school age or above when the murders happened, especially in the context of the cultural revolution America was undergoing at the time. Also, to be honest, by the time I knew who Manson was, serial killers were a thing (Zodiac killer, Son Of Sam, etc) and Jim Jones had his followers commit mass suicide in Guyana. So while the Manson murders were horrifying, they didn't exactly stand out.

That said, strange as it sounds, Manson was one of those monsters of society who was always present in the pop culture landscape, even if he was mainly just lurking in the background muttering to himself. The weird charisma he exerted on his followers also had an effect on those of us who were repulsed by him – a madman with the ability to make you question yr own sanity if you weren’t careful.

Or is that giving him too much credit?

Anyway, when I think of it, I wonder if maybe it was a good thing that he became a cartoon character for many of us. True Evil wants you to take it seriously. It wants you to be afraid. It hates being laughed at, being mocked. And in the end, we laughed at Manson. And in doing so we made him powerless to frighten us.

There’s a lesson there, perhaps, especially in this day and age where various groups of people are trying to frighten us into accepting their agenda.

FUN FACT: One of the many legends of Charles Manson is that he once auditioned for the Monkees TV show. Turns out that’s not true.

Helter Stupid,

This is dF
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As you know, Adam West is gone.

Like a lot of people, West was a pop culture icon of my childhood thanks to the syndication of Batman. And whatever his qualities as an actor, he was perfect for the role – too perfect, perhaps, although West was able to reconcile himself with it. And that’s good.

Also, like a lot of people, he was my first Batman experience – in my case, it was the TV show that led me to read the comic books, rather than the other way round. And of course there will always be debate about how “authentic” West’s Batman was – after all, the whole show was meant to be ironic camp fun for 60s hipsters who laughed at Batman’s ultra-square demeanor.

And yet it wasn’t. While the show was essentially conceived as a sort of superhero sitcom, they were serious about Batman’s squareness, if only because he was meant to be the sane centerpiece of an insane crooked world of flamboyant supervillains, and a counterpoint to Robin’s youthful impulsiveness to do what feels right vs what is right – even if it’s a detail like pedestrian safety or being too young to legally enter a nightclub.

Here’s one way of looking at it – college-age hipsters watched it in the 1960s and laughed at Batman’s goody-two-shoes squareness. Primary school kids in the 1970s like me watched the reruns and saw Batman as the ultimate role model – the guy who stands for justice, defends the defenseless, obeys rules and laws (apart from the ones against vigilantism, of course, but who thinks of that when yr eight?), and generally does the right thing for the Greater Good of society.

In other words, we didn't see the irony – we saw the superhero we thought Batman was supposed to be. And we aspired to that. As you do when yr a kid.

Of course we grew up, and in my case I did see the goofy, hokey side of it all (and as Mark Hamill has pointed out, it says a lot that West was able to play the role for laughs and seriously at the same time).

By that time, too, we had The Dark Knight and characters like Wolverine, the first of many bad-ass superheroes who were perfectly fine with killing bad guys and delivering snappy one-liners while doing it – which Adam West’s Batman would never have done in a million years.

Don't get me wrong – gritty realism and graphic violence has its place in comics. I liked Frank Miller’s take on the Dark Knight, and it’s an aspect of the character worthy of exploration, and one that has been explored well, possibly to the point of ad nauseum. But it’s just one aspect of a multifaceted and contradictory character. And West’s Batman is arguably at the core of the character – he may be an orphan who dresses up like a bat to punch the crap out of criminals, but he is also grounded in a very clear sense of right and wrong, and there are lines he will not cross.

Naïve and oversimplistic? Probably. But why not? For my money, superhero stories don’t have to be “realistic” in order to be entertaining or meaningful. They also work as basic good vs evil stories where good generally wins, eventually – and does so on its own terms rather than stooping to the level of evil. And the “terms” can be generally defined as what we think of as ideals of morality, citizenship and justice – where crime never pays and the bad guys never get away with it, but ensuring that without breaking the confines of a fair and impartial justice system. The fact that the real justice system is neither fair nor impartial – to say nothing of the fact that vigilantism technically is by definition extrajudicial – is beside the point. Classic superheroes tended to operate according to the principles of that system regardless of whether the system itself did or not.

We need stories like that, just as we need stories that focus on what happens when the system fails us. Because I don’t think you can really appreciate the significance of the latter without appreciating the aspirations of the former.

Also, as Neil Gaiman intimated in a Riddler story, the former is just more fun. And it’s evident we’re starting to see a backlash at least in DC films that have gone for gritty realism vs Marvel’s lighter approach. I personally love the Nolan Batman films, but that was a specific cycle of films. There’s no need to make the whole universe like that. Anyway, you know you’ve gone too far with the Dark Knight angle when the Lego films are making fun of you.

I suppose some might point to Joel Schumacher’s Batman and Robin as proof that light-hearted cartoony Batman doesn’t work. I don’t think it’s a fair comparison, partly because Schumacher went against the expectations of franchise fans at the time who expected Tim Burton’s version, but also because the problem with Batman and Robin wasn’t the one-liners, overacting villains and cartoon sound effects – it was a bad story, too many supervillains, a very clumsy and forced attempt to shoehorn Batgirl into the franchise and Robin basically acting like a petulant jerk.

So, anyway, respect to Adam West for helping create a square, straight-edge Batman that we could look up to and yet not take too seriously, all at once.

Go West,

This is dF
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Chris Cornell is gone.

And of course I have to blog about that because the very first time I heard Soundgarden … I wasn’t that impressed.

Not that I thought they sucked. Far from it. I just didn’t quite get what they were doing.

This was 100% my problem. I was writing album reviews for the college newspaper at the time, and I was very heavily into punk and underground music at the time. The way it worked was, the local mall record store would let me take a couple of new records home to listen to, and then I would choose which one I thought made enough of an impression (good or bad) to write about, then bring them back.

One week, one of the options was Soundgarden’s Loud Love. I forget what the other album was, but I wrote about it instead, because I could at least get a handle on it. I really didn’t know what to make of Soundgarden – they were long-haired guys with no shirts on and they sounded (to me) like a heavy Led Zeppelin tribute band. I suppose they didn’t fit within my narrow punk aesthetic so I kind of blew them off.

Less than a year later, some friends turned me on to Nirvana’s first album, Mudhoney and Mother Love Bone from someplace called Seattle. I liked them a lot. Then someone else reintroduced me to Loud Love again, and I gave it another chance and THEN it clicked. I got it. And I was both amazed at the music, at Cornell’s vocals, and at myself for being so thick as to not like it on first listen.

I tended to do this a lot when I was younger. (Heck, I probably still do it now.) There was a long list of bands I didn’t really “get” the first time I heard them, but give it a year and I’d hear them again and go, “Wow, this is great, what was I thinking?”

Anyway.

Here’s a true story: I saw Soundgarden live when they were promoting the Badmotorfinger album. My best friend and I drove from Clarksville, TN to Nashville to watch them open for Skid Row. The played for something like 40 minutes and absolutely blew the roof off the dump. We danced in the aisle and as soon as Soundgarden finished their set, we got out of the building before Skid Row could get anywhere near the stage.

It’s probably the only time in my life I ever paid full price for a concert ticket just to see the opening band.



That’s Soundgarden, of course. As for Cornell himself, I admit I didn’t buy his solo stuff, but I did like the first Audioslave album – it was basically Rage Against The Machine with a new lead singer, but it blended perfectly.

Even his James Bond theme song was pretty decent. That was a surreal pop culture moment for me as well, having grown up with Bond films, where one of the big deals about any new film was who would they get to sing the theme song – at one time, it was a sort of a career signpost signaling you’d finally made it. That arguably stopped being true by the time The Living Daylights came out. Still, they didn’t give the job of singing the latest Bond theme song to just anyone. Anyway, Cornell wasn’t an obvious choice – if you were going to go with “former grunge singer does Bond theme” atall, I’d have thought Eddie Vedder would be yr go-to guy.

In any case, admit it – “You Know My Name” was arguably the best Bond song since Duran Duran’s “A View To A Kill”.

Anyway, he was one of the iconic singers of my college years, and I’m saddened and shocked to hear he’s gone so soon.

Say hello 2 heaven,

This is dF
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As you all know, Mary Tyler Moore is gone.

I don’t have much to say that hasn’t already been said – she was a TV staple of my childhood, and I do remember that final episode and what a big deal it was.

And with everyone talking about how revolutionary the show was in terms of featuring a female lead who wasn’t a housewife, I suppose it had some kind of background effect on me in terms of learning that women can be independent and have careers like anyone else. Which sounds obvious today, of course, but in 1970 this was still a new concept for many people. (So was the idea of putting a divorced female character on prime time TV, which was apparently the original premise, which CBS rejected.)

Anyway, among the tributes pouring in to MTM, some people have been posting covers of the show’s theme song.



The one I’ve known for years is, of course, the Husker Du version.



Then there’s the Joan Jett version.



You've probably heard both of those in the past week. 

But odds are you haven’t heard the Sammy Davis Jr disco version.



Or the Nashville Country version by Sonny Curtis (who. Incidentally, sang the original TV version).



Now that I’ve heard both, I still prefer the Husker Du/Joan Jett versions.

Yr gonna make it after all,

This is dF
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And so 2016 is done.

Here’s how a lot of people feel about it.







Here’s how I personally feel about it:

1. I do think that on some kind of objective or non-partisan level, 2016 wasn’t a great year, particularly for the West. After all, it was the year of a particularly noxious US election – easily the most soul-sucking and joyless of any election I’ve ever followed – bookended by the deaths of major cultural icons like David Bowie and Carrie Fisher, and punctuated by hate-fueled mass shootings, terrorism, and a deterioration of race relations, among other things. And it was a year where politicians successfully exploited fear, loathing and xenophobia to gain power, stoking higher and higher levels of fear and distrust between groups of people.

2. However, it’s fair to say a lot of this was artificially amplified by hyperpartisan broadcast media, blog sites and social media feeds packed with hyperbolic batshit negativity memes (which in itself is an objective indicator that 2016 was a drag).

3. So it’s weirdly appropriate that the “Fuck You 2016” meme shooting around the internet is itself a hyperbolic batshit negativity meme – for far too many people, that was their default setting in terms of media consumption and online interaction.

4. But it is hyperbole. This article from NPR and this article from WaPo make a good case for this. Also, this article from the Smithsonian provides historical perspective on the “worst year ever” meme. 

5. Granted, the extent to which it is hyperbole will depend on yr specific circumstances. For example, if yr just sad that yr candidate lost the POTUS election, that's just post-election blues amplified by the emo/fear aspects of this specific election. However, if you live in Flint, MI, or if yr an African-American whose family member was killed by police despite being unarmed, or if yr a Muslim who just watched a guy win the presidency by promising to treat you as an enemy of the state, or if yr hometown is Aleppo – etc and so on – then absolutely you’ve earned the right to say that 2016 was a terrible year. 

(On the flip side, if yr a Trump fan, a member of the KKK and/or a Wall Street player – or if you were simply someone who was not directly impacted by any of the above trends and/or don't really care about those who were – then 2016 may have been good year for you, barring any personal circumstances.)

6. In terms of historical perspective, 2016 was lightweight compared to – say – the years that contained political assassinations, the Holocaust, the Inquisition or the Black Plague. And as I’ve mentioned elsewhere, in terms of pure statistics, 2016 actually showed promise in a lot of areas. So like the NPR article mentions above, a lot of the dithering over 2016 is more about perception than reality.

7. Others have pointed out – and I agree – that calendars are artificial constructs for tracking the passage of time, so it’s kind of silly to treat 2016 as a bad year that we need to get out of the way. It doesn't work that way.

8. On a related note, people made a lot of hay about 2016 being a bad year for celebrity icons. I think that’s a combination of the relevance of specific icons and also the age at which some of them passed on – Gene Wilder and Leonard Cohen (both in their 80s) were sad but not too surprising, compared to relatively younger people like Prince, Carrie Fisher, George Michael and possibly even Bowie.

But sorry to say, we’re going to see more of that in 2017 and every year from here on in. The actors, musicians, artists and other heroes whose work meant something to us when we were kids are mortal like everyone else, and sooner or later, it’s time for them to go. Knowing this doesn’t make it less painful when they do go, obviously. The point is that 2016 wasn’t some cursed year – it just seemed that way in the context of all the other crappy things going on.

9. By the way, for the people who have been joking that they hope 2017 is the year that Death stops killing the good celebrities and starts targeting people who “deserve it” (Trump being on the top of the list, followed by Ted Nugent, Scott Baio, Mike Pence, Ann Coulter, etc): not funny. Not to me.

Bring it on,

This is dF

REBEL GIRL

Dec. 28th, 2016 12:02 pm
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And now Carrie Fisher is gone.

And somehow this pic just seems appropriate.



I don’t know what I can add to everything else being said about her. Obviously she was part of my pop culture landscape with Star Wars – Leia was one of the first female characters I saw onscreen who wasn’t a frail damsel in distress. She was smart, tough and funny.

Fisher was also a good writer (I’ve only ever read Postcards From The Edge, but it’s a very funny book), and a funny person. I also loved the fact that she brought her dog Gary along to interviews.



It’s sad that she’s gone, but it’s good that she was here. Not only did she embody one of the great female icons of my generation, she also did a lot of good works offscreen by talking about her addiction and mental illness issues. (One of my family members is a recovering alcoholic who has also been diagnosed as bipolar, so I’m not a disinterested bystander in the that regard.)

In closing, I’ll honor her request to report that she died the way she wanted to go – drowned in moonlight and strangled to death by her own bra.

A princess in a world full of dragons,

This is dF

EDITED TO ADD [29 Dec]: And a day later, her mom Debbie Reynolds has also passed, because that's how 2016 rolls. 

defrog: (Default)
Well, I can’t post something about George Michal and not do the same for Leonard Cohen, who did a Bowie last month by releasing a great new album on his birthday and passing away shortly afterwards.

The title track is very apropos – not just of Cohen’s passing, but 2016 in general.



It’s a high note to go out on – even this late in the game, Cohen still had a way with words and imagery. Helping things out here are the musical arrangements via son Adam Cohen, which are in some ways the kind of minimalist background typical of a Cohen album, but with some striking variations from the formula here and there. It’s made a lot of Best of 2016 lists, and it will likely make mine as well.

Ironically, when Cohen passed, most of the media focus wasn’t on the new album but his back catalog, specifically that song, which everyone knows thanks to Jeff Buckley’s cover version (which I blogged about ages ago – note that the YouTube links are all busted). I can understand that – after all, Cohen was one of the best singer-songwriters of his time, so it’s only right to focus on the classics that earned him that rep.

My own introduction to Cohen was via – of all things – the Natural Born Killers soundtrack, which featured two songs from his album The Future. I liked the songs, but even then I didn’t realize his songwriting reputation until the Tower Of Song tribute album came out. That album is a mixed bag, but it encouraged me to check out the source, and I’ve been an intermittent fan ever since – I say “intermittent” because to be honest, not every Cohen album is a winner, and a little Cohen does go a long way for me.

Still, if you need a song, he had a tower full of ‘em.

Here’s one my favorites that that isn't that one.



I’m sentimental if you know what I mean,

This is dF
defrog: (45 frog)
And so 2016 gets one more boot in with George Michael.

I have to confess, I’m one of the few people on the planet who wasn’t a big fan. Which is not to say I don’t think he was talented. He was a fine singer and a showman, and I can prove that with this video of him performing with Queen for a Freddie Mercury tribute/AIDS awareness fundraiser.



Sure, he’s no Freddie Mercury, but c’mon, no one was except Freddie. And in many respects Freddie was no George Michael.

That said, I was never really into Wham!, who I found to be a bit silly and pretty to be taken seriously. I’ll admit too that by the time I became aware of them, my musical tastes were more solidly in classic/heavy rock territory. And by the time George went solo, I was firmly in Punkville and turned off by Michael’s ubiquity. So … you know.

Now that I’m older and wiser (okay, older), I still can’t say I’m a fan, but it’s easier to see why Wham! were as big as they were, and why George ended up an even bigger pop star on his own. One thing I didn’t realize in the 80s was that Michael wasn’t just a pretty face being handed pro pop songs to sing – he wrote most of his own songs (both in Wham! and solo), and 30+ years later, his hits are still in circulation – one of them now being a staple Christmas song, albeit one that’s now going to have some extra emotional heft, seeing as how he passed on Christmas Day.

Anyway, here in HK he had his share of fans. And inevitably, one of the classic stories making the rounds here is the time that Wham! became the first Western pop group to play in mainland China.

It’s actually a fascinating story in terms of how they managed to land the gig (to include their manager screwing Queen out of the gig by portraying Freddie Mercury as kinda gay – hmmmm yes …) and how the audience had to be careful not to be seen having an unacceptably good time, etc.

Respect.

Guilty feet have got no rhythm,

This is dF
defrog: (license to il)
I should probably post something about Fidel Castro, if only for posterity.

Obviously a lot of people are assessing his legacy via their own narrow political filters. For some people on the Left he was a symbolic hero with good intentions who gave Conservative Self-Righteous America the finger for decades – oh, and great healthcare system. For some people on the Right he was an evil, ruthless murderous Commie dictator (just like Obama) and not at all like (say) Vlad Putin (admirable) or Saddam Hussein (not a Commie, great terrorist killer).   

I think it's fair to say that Castro was all of these things. For me, however, Castro was mostly a cartoon character in American pop culture.

For context, I was born in 1965, well after the Communist Revolution in Cuba and the Bay Of Pigs incident. By the time I was aware of “the news” and the existence of geopolitics in the mid-70s, Castro was more a comedy staple than Terrifying Communist Menace On America’s Doorstep. Even with the Cold War still raging, Castro wasn’t an actual threat to America so much as an irritant for right-wingers annoyed that anyone could get away with setting up a Damn Commie regime just 90 miles off the coast of this great nation, etc.

So by the time I was aware of who Castro was, my image of him was more like this.

 

 

 

Of course, as I got older, I learned about the details of his regime, which are far more nuanced and complex than either side cares to admit. But really Castro has always kind of remained a television news character – like Reagan, Yasser Arafat, Mikael Gorbachev and others. So I didn’t take him all that seriously.

Which is probably why by the 1990s – like a lot of people – I thought the US ban on trade and travel with Cuba to be anachronistic and pointless. Sure, dictatorships are bad, and life under Castro was pretty bad for a lot of people.

On the other hand, by then I was very aware that the US govt has always been selective about which dictatorships are bad. And frankly by the 90s it was pretty clear that the US sanctions that were meant to isolate Castro and hasten the demise of his revolution simply weren’t working. At all. They weren’t working all the way up to the time that Obama put an end to them.

I guess that’s why on a purely objective level, it’s hard not to be impressed with Castro a little. He was a genuine cult of personality who started his own banana republic and defied the world’s biggest superpower right up to the end of his long natural life. The US couldn’t kill him (and don’t think they didn’t try). They couldn’t squeeze him economically. Nothing worked. (The going joke now is that the CIA finally got him by getting him to die of old age.)  

Still, yes, murderous dictator, etc. For all of the US’s hapless failings regarding its foreign policy on Cuba, no one should be glossing over the fact that Castro was pretty ruthless and heavy-handed as dictators go. You could argue that his predecessor Batista was worse, but let’s not pretend Castro’s opposition got off light.

Anyway, he’s gone, and now many Cubans are hoping that, with reformist brother Raul in charge, the country can move forward somehow and join the 21st century.

There is one hitch, of course.

Cuba libre,

This is dF 

defrog: (Default)
Gene Wilder is gone, as you probably know.

I should probably say something – partly because I’m a fan of many of his 70s films, but also because the very first film I remember seeing in a cinema was Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory.

Or at least it’s the first live-action film I remember. My parents may have taken me to see a Disney film or two (which would have been either The Jungle Book and/or The Aristocats), but I have no memory of that. But I vividly remember going to see WW&TCF. I was six when it came out, and I remember the contrast between the darkness of Charlie’s world (especially the scene where Slugworth tries to recruit him as an industrial espionage agent) and the bright Technicolor world of Wonka, and I remember the fates of the bad kids, and the twisted horror of the psychedelic riverboat scene (which scared the hell out of me).

And of course I remember Gene Wilder alternately singing, chattering and shouting his way through the picture. Wonka was the first movie character to stick in my head. He’s been there ever since, though it wasn’t until I was older that I realized just how well-constructed a character Wonka was, and how a lot of that was down to Wilder’s brilliant performance.

And then came his work with Mel Brooks – The Producers, Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein – and Richard Pryor (the first two films, anyway).

By the 80s, I’d lost interest in Wilder after he seemed to just want to do sentimental romantic comedies, a genre which has never really interested me. The Woman In Red in particular seemed to cement his image as the Lionel Richie of Hollywood comedy – politely inoffensive romantic man in a cardigan – at a time when I was getting into horror movies and punk.

But I still enjoy watching him in his 70s heyday. I used to joke that he was one of the Great Shouting Actors Named Gene of my generation (the other one being Gene Hackman). But it’s intended as a compliment.

Incidentally, one Wilder film I’d recommend that isn't a Wonka or Mel Brooks film is The Frisco Kid (1979). You may want to approach with caution because (1) it got mixed reviews and (2) I haven’t seen it for over 30 years. But I remember liking it at the time. If nothing else, you get to see a younger Harrison Ford play cowboy.

Pure imagination,

This is dF
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Elie Wiesel did it all the way up to July 2, 2016, when he passed away at age 87.

I felt like I should say something, even though I only read one of his books: Night, which I read way back in my college days (on purpose, not for credit). It’s a brilliant and harrowing book that somehow manages to compress all of the horror of the Holocaust into a compact 120 pages.

And I had already been exposed to that via a field trip to the Dachau concentration camp memorial site in the 1980s, which was a very intense experience. Wiesel made that look like Spring Break.

In fact, Wiesel wrote about his experience so well that I never had the nerve to pick up another of his books. It was like, “I get it, I get it.” But of course he was the one who had to live with the actual experience. And it’s remarkable that he took that experience and turned it into an inspirational crusade for justice and change, rather than bitterness and hate.

Respect.

So yeah, I may have to steel myself and check out some more of his books.

I will survive,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
So you know Muhammad Ali is the latest celebrity casualty of 2016.

Which means, among other things, that he and Howard Cosell are together again.



I have to admit, I’ve never been a fan of boxing. But Muhammad Ali’s self-professed greatness transcended the sport. He was very much a part of my pop culture landscape as I was growing up, appearing on talk shows and the occasional sitcom. He even had his own Saturday morning cartoon for a bit.

And he was easily the most quotable sports figure of my generation outside of professional wrestling.

It’s interesting too that he was an Islam convert – which was controversial at the time, but arguably not as much as it would be in 2016 if some major non-white sports figure was to do the same. Certainly it didn’t prevent Ali from becoming a beloved pop culture icon. It’s fair bet that most Americans had forgotten Ali was a Muslim until Donald Trump inadvertently reminded them.

Anyway. Respect.

Like a bee,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)


You all know about Prince.

As a blogger I’m obligated to say a few things about this.

1. I should say up front I’ve never really been a fan of Prince in the literal sense. To be clear, I do like a lot of his music, and I have the utmost respect for him as a songwriter, musician, artist and general force of nature.

But I only ever owned a few of his albums, and none are from 1990 on. Prince was one of those artists that was so ubiquitous on the radio and MTV that it didn’t seem necessary to buy copies of his albums – I could hear him all the time anyway.

2. That said, this is my favorite Prince album.


Even though it was a major hit, I remember a lot of people put it down at the time – partly because it came across as a cheesy movie marketing gimmick, and partly because Prince turned the Batman and The Joker into a weird hybrid alter-ego that had nothing to do with the movie, which just seemed really egotistical even by Prince standards.

And yet the whole thing really is a weird kind of genius – the album and the videos are basically Prince deconstructing the whole Batman/Joker mythos and rebuilding it in his own image. io9 has a great write-up of what Tim Burton’s film would have been like if he’d gone with Prince’s storyline. I have to say, I'd go see that.

3. It’s always interested me that Prince was simultaneously heralded as a brilliant guitarist (which he was) and underrated to the point that he rarely made it onto any given list of the greatest guitar players. I suppose it was partly because most of the “great” guitar players are only really known for playing guitar, whereas Prince played lots of other instruments as well.

4. One of the benchmarks of any major pop star who writes his/her own songs is the extent to which people cover them. Famously, Prince has written hits for Sinead O’Connor and The Bangles. Lesser known covers include The Goo Goo Dolls doing “I Could Never Take The Place Of You Man” (with The Incredible Lance Diamond) and the Hindu Love Gods (Warren Zevon and ¾ of REM) doing “Raspberry Beret” (which I would link to if it existed on YouTube, which it doesn’t – see Item 7).

5. This sticker here?



Prince is basically responsible for that. It was his song “Darling Nikki” that set off Tipper Gore to start the PMRC and instigate a Senate investigation into “porn-rock” that eventually led to the music industry adopting that sticker.

Mind you, I’m not blaming Prince for that – I blame Tipper. But it goes to show how much Prince pushed at mainstream music’s boundaries. You know yr pushing hard enough when the Powers The Be who consider it their responsibility to set those boundaries decide to push back.

6. I know a guy who was in Minneapolis when the punk scene was raging in the early 80s. And to this day he resents that Prince made it big and got national attention and put Minneapolis on the pop culture map when there were more deserving local bands like Husker Du and The Replacements who should have been getting all the glory.

Of course eventually both bands got credit for being essential and influential. And both Bob Mould and Paul Westerberg have written touching tributes about Prince. So there’s maybe a lesson here about how being precious about yr little music scene only goes so far.

7. Anyway, it’s all been said elsewhere, but I have to respect a guy who did everything on his own terms and broke just about every rule he was supposed to play by to be a success at the time. Who else could change his name to an unpronounceable symbol and get away with it? Even his crusade against digital music (to include YouTube), while quixotic, was based on the well-intentioned argument that the artists should have control over how their music is shared and how much they’re compensated for that. 

8. This has nothing to do with Prince, but I thought I’d mention that he wasn’t the only influential music artist to die at age 57 that day.

Richard Lyons, one of the founders of Negativland, also passed away

Take me away,

This is dF


defrog: (Default)
George Martin is gone.

Not the bloke who writes the Game Of Thrones thing. The fifth Beatle.

You can probably get good recaps of his Beatles career here and here. And of course there was more to him than The Beatles.

But it’s only fair that everyone focuses on the Beatles stuff, because that whole story illustrates the importance of having a good producer in the studio who knows how to collaborate with a given artist and get the best possible results. Some bands don’t require producer intervention. Some do. The Beatles may or may not have needed it, but there’s little doubt they benefited from Martin’s input, and very likely wouldn’t be as influential as they are now.

At least some of that comes to the sheer innovation that Martin enabled. Think of it this way – as big as Beatlemania was, The Beatles would have likely gone the way of other teen-idol pop groups (here today, gone tomorrow) if they hadn’t evolved into something more serious and innovative. And Martin was the key to making that innovation work, not least because of the technical limitations at the time. In these days of Pro Tools, software effects and digital editing, it’s easy to forget how hard it is to record, mix and edit a musically complex song with a four-track mixer, analog tape and a razor blade.



And I’ve done both analog and digital audio production, so take it from me.

Anyway, Martin gets full credit from me for taking both The Beatles and pop/rock music forward into new and unexplored realms. Yes, rock as a music form has been in arrested development for a long time now. But Martin helped get it to where it is now. We need someone else like Martin to find the right artists to show us how to move forward again.

One other thing I’ll say about Martin: he also wrote the score to what is arguably my favorite Bond film soundtrack.



Not to put down John Barry, who did some awesome Bond scores. But Live and Let Die is the only Bond soundtrack with wah-wah.

BONUS TRACK: Martin also produced Cheap Trick’s fifth album All Shook Up, which tends to be underrated because it didn’t have a lot of radio-friendly songs compared to Dream Police, and it’s relatively more experimental. But it’s still a solid Cheap Trick album, IMO. Here's the opening track.



Hello goodbye,

This is dF
defrog: (Default)
I was smothered in business travel in Barcelona all last week, so this is old news I know, but I did want say something about Harper Lee’s passing.

NPR has as good a write-up about her and To Kill A Mockingbird as yr probably going to see elsewhere, apart maybe from this Bloom County tribute.

For myself, To Kill A Mockingbird is one of the great American novels, and also one of the very few “classics” that I had to read in high school that I actually enjoyed.

The novel is inspirational on at least two levels for me: (1) the content, of course, and its views on racism (which wasn’t all that distant a memory for the South when I read it in the early 80s – the KKK was still having annual marches in Franklin, TN at the time), and (2) the fact that it was Lee’s only published novel. Lee was proof positive that you only need to write one novel to be a novelist. In a way, it’s as well she didn't publish another one for most of the rest of her life – TKAM is a hard act to follow.

Go Set A Watchman probably proves that, not least because it was actually written before TKAM. I haven’t read it, but I’m aware of the controversy over it, both in terms of Atticus Finch’s character development and questions over whether Lee was in full control over the decision to publish it in the first place. Either way, I’m not aware of anyone saying it’s better than (or even on the same level as) TKAM – but then how could it be? TKAM has gestated for 50+ years as one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century. How do you top that?

Anyway, I don’t plan to read Go Set A Watchman anytime soon. I don’t feel the need to do so. TKAM’s legacy aside, prequels are almost always disappointing experiences, and frankly TKAM is such a great book in its own right it doesn’t need any fleshing out.

Which is why I do plan to re-read TKAM soon. It’ll be great to see if it’s as good and/or powerful as I remember. As I recall, it was a quite an intense experience.

Meanwhile, you may also know that Umberto Eco also passed away – which I mention mainly because I’ve never actually read any of his books. But he does get namedropped by some people I know, so if any of you have any recommendations of Eco books worth checking out (besides The Name Of The Rose – that’s a pretty obvious starting place), feel free to send them along.

Recommended reading,

This is dF


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