Saturday, August 11, 2018

Movies I Stayed Up Late For: Guest Appearance by Aidan Will: A Study of Billy Jack






The Billy Jack franchise has been a long-standing piece of my family's household for decades.  As readers of this blog and my Facebook page will well know.  My sister, Linda, indoctrinated me in the late 70's, and my love of the series has only grown despite its much deserved criticism.

The second in the series, Billy Jack, has a standing that has decreased in the mainstream over the years, but its cult adoration still exists and thrives.  Even modern film/tv stars like Nick Offerman sing its praises.  Why the fans exist is a question answered with multiple responses.  Whether its the nostalgia factor, the political leanings that dance on the fringes of history lessons, or its sympathy to the plight of Native Americans and their reservations, (these are issues still being addressed cinematically by the likes of Taylor Sheridan with the incredible Wind River, and TV's Yellowstone), all answers are valid.

My son Aidan has discovered it as well, and is a proud owner of the recent Shout Factory's Blu-Ray box set of the series.  His explanation of the Billy Jack Franchise's ups and downs is as strong, if not better summation of any I've read.  Sit back, put on your banded hat, prepare for a vision quest, and absorb the foundations of Milwaukee native Tom Laughlin's labour of love.

Ladies and Gents, I give you the words of Aidan Will:


It was a tumultuous time for the world, and a time of change for the cinema. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement had galvanized the youth culture into action and activism and disillusioned them with authority and government. In response, the film industry had to change. Those investing their money in film could no longer afford to ignore the youth. So, in the mid-sixties, a wave of more modestly budgeted and, frequently, more politically aware films hit the market, and these films made money. This was the scene Tom Laughlin entered with Billy Jack. Though obscured by the more well-known films of the day, Laughlin’s most well-known feature was nonetheless influential in how films are marketed and stands as a perfect example of the cinema of the early 70’s in both the methodology of its release and the merit of its content. 

Tom Laughlin was a Milwaukee native who began acting in the 50’s (Spiro, Milwaukee Journal). Upon witnessing the mistreatment of Native Americans in South Dakota, the hometown of his wife, Delores Taylor. This mistreatment ranged from attempts at exclusion and intimidation at the post office to their inhumane living situations. Laughlin deigned to write a screenplay capturing his frustrations at this mistreatment. He was in disbelief seeing people living in covered cars and showering in water coming from a pipe outside of a church. (Esposito) After marrying Delores, they were off to Hollywood, because he “wanted to change things.” They were soon bankrupt but the couple managed to arrange funds to produce the exploitation film The Born Losers (1967) to cash in on the motorcycle-gang film craze and raise the money to make Billy Jack. (Wilkins, People) 17 years after the script was initially written, they were able to make the film they wanted. Fighting tooth-and-nail all the way, they experienced various production problems ranging from disputes with Warner Bros. to Laughlin’s own fiery attitude and approach to directing on set. After selling the finished project to Warner Bros. for distribution for $1.8 million, Laughlin was unhappy and suspicious of their treatment of the film. He accused them of sidelining the project’s release in preference to their own productions and took them to court. The dispute was settled and Laughlin supervised the re-release himself, booking theaters across the country. He began showings with 66 Los Angeles theaters each showing the film for one to two weeks. It then spread to nearly 400 theaters simultaneously, a number which would only grow over the next two years. (Hall, Neale, 196-197)

The film, against all odds, was an absolute hit, factoring in both its initial 1971 release and subsequent re-releases facilitated by Warner Bros. in ’72 and ‘73, it grossed around $90 million on an $800,000 budget. When adjusted for inflation this is still an incredible and noteworthy success. The film was, if only briefly, a phenomenon, it seemed Billy Jack was the hero for the right place and the right time. Something about this film spoke to people, and when its content is considered, it’s surely understandable. Billy Jack (as played by Laughlin himself) was a war veteran who hated the Vietnam war, and sought to defend people from social injustices whenever he could, perhaps the perfect hero for the youth of 60’s and 70’s. In particular, he aimed to defend the so-called ‘Freedom School,’ a facility ran by Jean (Delores Taylor’s character) where all were welcome, no matter their heritage or interests. Of course, a group of backwards townspeople, even on the establishment level, are not keen on this institution, essentially relegating it to a haven of kooks encouraging and bolstering hooligan behavior. The design of this film is, to say the least, peculiar. It defies categorization. Surely many people flocked to see the film’s impressively executed martial arts sequence, but that’s only a small fraction of the film.

 It could be said Laughlin was uncertain of the sort of film he wanted to make. The focus of the final product, for all its merit, is certainly questionable. At times it does hearken back to its exploitation predecessor, The Born Losers, with a subplot involving the rape of Delores Taylor’s character, and of course the titular character’s physical vengeance upon the oppressors of the town. Yet there are large portions of this film that seem to lean towards the tendencies of the Art film, or even the Neorealist film. Billy Jack comes and goes, but what is always there is the town and its people. And Laughlin was happy to let the camera stay on the people of town and the students of the school. We see children sing songs, and men perform improvisational theatre both on campus and in the middle of the town. He had visual reverence for the natural landscapes surrounding the area. These sequences alternate between being somewhat of a drag to legitimately charming. Calling back to Neorealism, the film was shot on location and much of the cast was culled from non-professional sources, including friends of the Laughlin family. Laughlin got convincing performances out of the people where it counted. Thanks to this, the serious moments of the film operate with actual gravity and are able to land on the audience with impact. 

There’s no doubt that the film is deeply spiritual as well, with Laughlin wanting to pay great respect to the Native American people. He stated in an interview his belief that in making Billy Jack he was helping to preserve the message and memory of the Ghost Religion founded by the Paiute leader Wovoka, after Wovoka’s son-in-law and last surviving descendant, Andy Vidovich flew to the set stating “Wovoka wants me to get his message out.” In consideration of more than one interesting synecdoche occurring on set (one a scene of Native Ritual, the other a dispensation of mortal justice) Laughlin states that upon filming certain scenes, “It became clear to me that Wovoka was using us to get his message through to today’s youth.” (Esposito) It has to be admitted that the film is preachy, Laughlin had no interest in subtlety here. The saving grace being that it was well-meaning, sincere, and perhaps appropriate for the time it was made. The film draws from real experiences had by Taylor growing up in South Dakota. One famous scene, in which one of the oppressors pours flour over some of the students in an ice cream shop to “make them white,” was based off of actual events. (Esposito) It is very likely, given Laughlin’s very particular anti-authority attitude and borderline-hippie aesthetic, that this film couldn’t have been so successful in any other period of time. 

It goes without saying that despite the film’s stellar box office performances and warm reception by audiences (if not critics), not to mention its spawning of at least one highly successful sequel, The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) (which itself featured a highly influential marketing campaign) , it’s simply not remembered like the box office hits of its day such as William Friedkin’s The Exorcist (1973), Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975) and George Lucas’s Star Wars (1977). When looking at the time in New Hollywood when a film first became an event that could be sustained for a long time over a wide area, Billy Jack is surely not irrelevant to the conversation. Yet it’s not frequently included in such discourse. There are no Billy Jack Halloween costumes, no Billy Jack action figures or playsets, or talks of rereleases and reboots. The film’s popularity has died down from a blockbuster audience to what is essentially a cult following that, while passionate and enduring, is not massive. 

So, why was the Billy Jack craze so ephemeral in comparison to that of the blockbusters that would follow? Why would a massive blockbuster audience simmer down to the most modest of followings?  Perhaps it was simply too much of a product of its time, satisfying to its immediate audience, but dated in such a way to render it less palatable for later audiences. On an objective level, Billy Jack simply wasn’t as great a film as Jaws or Star Wars. The film’s unfocused and unclassifiable nature, while part of its intrigue, may have been to its detriment in the long run. This film couldn’t reward the average viewer on repeat watches as perhaps Jaws and Star Wars could. Those curious about the film’s seminal, Bruce Lee-predating martial arts sequence may have lost interest after learning they would also have to contend with prolonged sequences of singing and improvisational theater.  The Trial of Billy Jack, while also a great success, was even more experimental and carried on the political themes of its predecessor, even featuring recreations of the Kent State Shootings and the My Lai Massacre. This was not a well-received film, critically speaking (Though there are those in recent times calling for a reappraisal), and the next Billy Jack film, Billy Jack Goes to Washington would end up being a cinematic vehicle for Laughlin’s real-life political ambitions, and never saw theatrical release. A fifth sequel began production but was never finished. Perhaps, if the sequels had committed to a specific genre (likely the action film) the franchise’s popularity could have maintained momentum enough for it enough to have achieved lasting mainstream recognition.

So, what is Billy Jack? Is it’s a blockbuster or a cult film? The proportion of its budget to its success was surely suggest a blockbuster, and one might demand it take a place at the table of the 70’s box office successes, given its re-release exhibition method of “four-walling” had an influence on several major studios’ re-releases of expensive pictures who’s initial box office results were disappointed, such as Warner’s Jeremiah Johnson (1972), Avco Embassy’s The Day of the Dolphin (1973) and MGM’s Westworld (1973).  (Hall, Neale, 197) But today the film holds onto but a modest cult audience. It could be said that Billy Jack was a cult film that scratched and clawed its way to blockbuster success through the sheer tenacity of its creator. 

In the end, the film’s legacy still clings to life in the periphery. Laughlin and Taylor have since passed on (Laughlin in 2013, Taylor in 2018), survived by their children who also took part in the making of their films. However rough around the edges, Billy Jack deserves a place in the discussion of New Hollywood given to its unlikely success and appeal to the youth culture.  The Billy Jack franchise remains as a testament to the Laughlins’ passion and their hope for social change, as well as a monument to their extraordinary perseverance in a harsh industry. 




Monday, July 30, 2018

Bound to the Past: Jaws





As a kid, I was really a huge fan of sharks.  Ridiculously so.  They were, after all, "nature's perfect killing machine", which was a quote said or written by everybody.  By the 4th grade, I had accumulated numerous books of the Scholastic variety, and watched every nature program on the subject that was available without the benefit of cable television.  My mom had added to my burgeoning interest by finding copies of Shark: Attacks on Man by George A Llano and Shark Attack by H. David Baldridge at rummage sales. I was, at a young age no less, becoming an oceanographer-level expert on the notorious carcharodon carcharias.

And needless to say, I had seen Jaws about 10 times by the time I was 9.  At that age, I had decided I wanted to take the leap and read Peter Benchley's novel that was the basis for Steven Spielberg's now famous popcorn extravaganza, and likely my favorite movie. In the same basement rec-room that I had stumbled across the book Strange Unsolved Mysteries, I had also found someone's ragged and dog-eared copy of Jaws, emblazoned with the "Now a Major Motion Picture" stamp that has become so famously applied to novels making the leap to the silver screen.

Benchley's book became the first "non-kid" book I ever read.  Sadly, it was nowhere near as exciting as Spielberg's filmed version, and contained a bit too much melodrama for a youngster geared up for blood-and-guts killer fish action.  Who needed all that marital intrigue?  Certainly not this 9 year-old.  Despite that, this was the moment that I fell in love with the concept of the novel.  I've been an avid reader ever since.  Eventually my sister bought me the novelization of Jaws 2 by Hank Searls for Christmas, and this young completionist was thrilled.  I had a mini-library of shark-related material to continually delve into, while that behavior drew shaking heads and rolled eyes from family members.



In the winter of 1979, another sister (see a trend developing here?) bought me Ideal's Jaws "board game" where you need to pluck junk from the great fish's mouth before its jaws clamp down on the plastic hook you use to accomplish this goal. To be honest, the box it comes in is much cooler than the game itself.




Not too much further past that moment in time, sharks lost much of their luster as explained hereNonetheless, The Great White Shark, through fiction and fantasy, had become an imagination-piquing device that I, to this day, occasionally still reference.  I've seen Jaws and Jaws 2 many more times since, passed their legendary stories on to my kids, (avoid numbers 3 and 4 at all costs, unless you dig unintended laughter) own a DVD copy of Blue Water, White Death, and have immersed myself in Steve Alten's hyper-speed Meg series with great relish.  Meg, to the uninitiated, is based on the Megaladon species, the prehistoric precursor to the Great White, said to be a 65 foot version of it's descendant.  You can imagine where the imagination can take that concept.  A filmed version of that classic is headed to the big screen this summer, 43 years after Jaws.

I don't know if I would have become the avid reader I am, the lover of suspense and sci-fi that I continue to be, the admirer of the great creatures that only mother nature can provide that I have always been, had it not been for Jaws.  I definitely wouldn't have turned out to be the Roy Scheider enthusiast that I am.  Speaking of which, check out The Seven-ups and Sorcerer today.  I mean it, buy them now.  These films are 70's masterworks.

And again, to a book, I'm grateful.

Say, if you're in the mood for my less-than-insightful look at one of the most blatant rip-offs of Jaws ever made, there's this.








Monday, July 9, 2018

Critical Mass For The Envelope



Since the dawn of music, movies, and film,  people have been trying to get to the extreme edge of expression.  

Society itself usually provides the method of reigning it in, whether it be mild watchfulness or censorship, it doesn’t matter. The outside layers get pushed further and further out over time.

I think we may have reached critical mass.

Maybe I’m talking about the door that was opened by punk in the 70’s and the metal and grind core blacksmiths that wandered through it that have brought us to the brink with black metal. 

Perhaps I mean the dark corners probed by cyberpunk and splatter authors that exacerbated and maybe even blasphemed the pathways laid by Stephen King?

Of course there’s the awful rough edges of film created by filmmakers I won’t mention by name here.  Their stuff is not the material of mass marketing, but I know who they are and what they’ve done and cannot understand them.  It seems as though they want to drag the awful into the light so you can stare at it like Malcolm McDowell at the end of “A Clockwork Orange”, while they grin at the hideousness they have wrought.

What is the purpose of the exposed flesh these musicians, writers, and filmmakers have birthed?

It’s possible to flash the dark angles of the soul to express your anger, your pain, your frustration.  Those pieces of night, when bared, are definitely supposed to let folks know that there’s a layer to you that they should be sad for, feel the anger associated with, perhaps even be wary of. 

Those moments that the author, the creator, allows to flicker, do indeed shock because they are of themselves and by nature limited. It’s painful because its unsustainable. The expression of sadness, anger, sorrow, yes, even hatred can be beautiful when its measured. When you prolong it, it becomes something else. 

It becomes ugly. 

It becomes cruel.

It becomes Evil.

The raw, ripping music of The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Misfits.  The words of Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, and Joe R. Lansdale.  The filmed brush strokes of John Carpenter, Wes Craven, George A. Romero.  These were the extremities of my youth, my roots, where I came from.  These were the hard edges that kept me up at night….

Yes, there are numerous moments in all of their accomplishments that are disturbing, disgusting, and painful to behold.  Those moments are surrounded by great beauty however, even if its just in the way the works are constructed or machined.  When the darkness comes, it tears at your heart, makes you leap, perhaps even reel back on your heels in shock.  The reason for that effect is because they are layered among the existence of other possibilities, and therein lies the art, shining is the beauty. 

I do love how I’ve seen all of these creators of legend being a direct influence on many artists today, so perhaps the apocalypse is not near.  That being said, I also see an outpouring of music that is 100% shock value, with vocals that sound like someone belching into a drive-thru speaker, writers that only merely sprinkle plot among the bloodshed, filmmakers that seek only to exploit the very base vile actions that humanity can perpetrate.  Like Stephen King himself said about one of his own short stories, they have "no redeeming social value".

Yes, it is a sort of critical mass.  Due to the pure monstrous id of what these folks have created, the others with a story to tell, a song to sing, a visual painting to create, can no longer be seen as “the edge”.  It's because the envelope the true artists pushed has been set alight by those who want to only disgust.  The edge hasn’t been pushed, it’s been leapt over, screaming and flailing, without a parachute.

It’s a shame, really.  I’m one of the lucky ones, having done enough research to know where those that dwell in the dark have displayed their work and choose to avoid it.  The world is dark enough on its own. Especially in these awful, multi-level monstrous days.  The true shocks, the startling moments of the soul, are best experienced when what exists around them actually provides them the strength and meaning they possess. 

I choose to take my darkness where it actually accomplishes what it’s supposed to. 


In the light.

And sometimes, in well designed darkness, the light has power too.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

The Spectrum Files: Johnny Got His Gun




I'm no big fan of guns, that's not a mystery to anyone that knows me, because my lizard brain has a hard time detangling them from warfare.

In the winter of 1988, all the long-hairs in my Central Wisconsin High School were jacked to the moon because it happened.

Metallica crossed over.

With the single "One", the Bay-area four piece thrash outfit had gone from headbanger cult band to a chart-topping rock act.  This opened the door to hearing the type of hard-rock on mainstream radio that most people wouldn't think possible.  It was a watershed moment.  That overshadowed the true accomplishments of the song, however.  The structure of "One" is based on the concept of a man who goes to war and loses all of his limbs, his eyesight, and his hearing.  He lays in a complete void wanting nothing but release.  In all reality, it is pretty impossible to imagine a worse fate.  The concept is mirrored by the story "Johnny Got His Gun" and subsequent film, both of which the band claimed to have never heard of when they composed the piece.



On a warm Saturday afternoon in the summer of 1982, Spectrum aired the 1973 film written and directed by the since-legendary Dalton Trumbo.  Trumbo was played to Oscar-nominated effect by the actor Bryan Cranston, in a film about the man and his membership of the group known as The Hollywood Ten, blacklisted for their alleged ties to communism.  Trumbo's gifts were such that he was allowed to work in the industry behind closed doors, uncredited.

At the outset of Johnny Got His Gun, I thought it was another visualization of war, like many I'd seen previously.  That is, until its descent into hell began.  The lead character, Joe Bonham, goes off to fight, eagerly hoping to defend his country in World War I before his fate befalls him.  When he awakes in his black and white nightmare, only his dreams (in full color) are a release from his nightmarish existence.



The film's final scene is a bleak and uncompromising vision of awfulness in its cold honesty.  As a 10 year old, it was an ice bath that accomplished its goal.  It disturbed me to my core.  A long-standing fear of mine is confinement, like being buried alive.  This young man's situation probably wasn't much different from it.  It was some of the scariest shit I've ever seen.  An allegory of my worst fears thrown onto the screen as some sort of punishment for patriotism.  I wanted nothing more but to help this young man pull free from the bonds of an impossible quagmire of unrepentant misery and was helpless to do so.  I knew it was fictional, but not impossible.   Hence my unease, my reluctance to forget it.  While many friends were watching movies painting war as action films, I'd not look at those movies the same way after Johnny Got His Gun.

Regardless, over time, the movie had settled under dust in my memory sharing time with other problems, and was dragged back into the sunlight by Metallica's video.  The clip used footage from the movie as a backdrop for performance shots of the band playing their instruments in an empty warehouse setting.  All of what that movie had to share was brought back in excruciating revival,  firing off receptors of recall, and I welcomed it.

Sometimes we need a reminder of what the viciousness of man can do, even if we don't necessarily want it.  But then again, in years since, art hasn't been necessary to provide that reminder.

It's been said that Jimmy Carter demanded all of his state department members view this film before beginning their work.  Perhaps it is time to resume that practice, and maybe have a few other people in government positions view it as well.

War is hell, but lessons can be learned in a much easier way than experiencing it for yourself.  Johnny Got His Gun is among the best teachers film has to offer.


Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Vinyl Destination: Eddie & The Cruisers

In the winter of 1983 my parents were going out for the night, so on the way home from work, my Dad brought home a pizza and Coke for me.  He also rented a VHS tape of "Eddie & The Cruisers" to keep me entertained.  Killer gesture from Pops, that's for sure.


Eddie & The Cruisers is a pedestrian movie in retrospect despite its cast of up-and-comers, namely Joe Pantoliano, Ellen Barkin, and Tom Berenger.  However, this particular 12 year old was excited as a slick teaser trailer from about a year prior had my interest piqued.  The story as it was sold in the trailer seemed compelling.  It felt as though it had that urban legend air of possibility, possessed decent direction and cinematography, and it featured one hell of a killer soundtrack.

The movie also references legendary French poet Arthur Rimbaud and his stellar work.  In the story, Eddie Wilson, charismatic lead singer of the titular rock and roll outfit Eddie & The Cruisers, is obsessed with Rimbaud's work to the point of naming his upcoming final album after a collection of Rimbaud's poetry, "A Season in Hell".  He even pulls off a mirror-image of Rimbaud's real-life disappearing act.

I won't lie.  As a kid, I was a huge fan of the soundtrack, became an avid fan of the actor who played Wilson, Michael Pare (who has long since derailed into a career of low-budgetry after a fierce start that also included The Philadelphia Experiment and the remarkable Streets of Fire) and later in life, the works of Arthur Rimbaud.

A handful of years back I was doing some sniffing around into Rimbaud's history and it was the first time I actually saw a photo of the poet.  On the top, Rimbaud, below, Pare.

 

Though Rimbaud's work is mentioned in the film, nowhere does the photo come up, so imagine my surprise at the fact that (at least in this photo) Michael Pare is a doppelganger for the long-dead Rimbaud.  Look up the actor anywhere online from when he was a youth and the resemblance is really quite amazing. 

So, the question is. What came first, the chicken or the egg? 

Eddie & The Cruisers is based on a book by PF Kluge, and in the novel, Wilson's muse is apparently Walt Whitman.  It has been mused upon that due to the Eddie Wilson character's dying in the mid 60's, a real-life popular music influence couldn't work.  Director Martin Davidson wanted to have Wilson's hero be someone kindred in spirit to the late Jim Morrison instead of Whitman.  Enter Arthur Rimbaud.  (reference here)

Where in the process of the script's development was it decided to go with Rimbaud?  Was Pare cast because he looks like Rimbaud?  If so, why isn't this eerie connection utilized to what could have been incredible effect?  Because the ball was dropped in a major way if the writers were indeed aware of the incredible resemblance...

As it stands, it would indeed be one (Season in) hell of a coincidence.







Monday, March 5, 2018

Bound to the Past: Salem's Lot




November 17, 1979 may have been the most frightened I have ever been by the filmed medium.   My beloved mom and I were in the living room alone, 38 years has muddled the fact of whether or not anyone else was in the house.  Chances are, gauging our binary fear, the answer was no.  My father was in the hospital for a few nights receiving cancer treatment.  At this point in the game, I was unaware of that knowledge, and would be for a couple more months.

That night was CBS' premiere airing of the mini-series adaptation of Stephen King's novel, "Salem's Lot".  The film is quite legendary and notorious for being among the most frightening of the made-for-TV medium at the very tail end of a decade famous for it.  The 70's small screen gave us "The Night Stalker", "Trilogy of Terror" "Don't Be Afraid of the Dark", and "Bad Ronald", after all.

A little history:  Before we had moved to this house, I had vivid memories of a particularly creepy paperback book I saw resting on top of my sister Linda's stack of textbooks at the breakfast table.  For those of you younger than 30, please reference here:   Textbook.    I had been monumentally creeped out by the Salem's Lot cover.  It wasn't just the simultaneously innocent and malicious facial expression, but that damned drop of blood that answered the question of which one of those two adjectives should be used to describe the gargoyle-like vampire's face on the paperback's front.  (See the title heading of this post for a representation)


I had no idea when it started what we were up against, and the film's director Tobe Hooper (of Texas Chainsaw Massacre infamy) let us know none too quickly.  By the opening credits, I was pinned up against the footrest of my Mom's orange recliner as she crocheted nervously.  The scene where Geoffrey Lewis and a partner drop off the crate in the Marsten House basement never left my mind.  Nothing particularly evil happens through the bulk of the scene, and it seems to go on forever, but I'm still creeped out by it as much as the much more notorious scenes in the film. 

Then the Glick bastard disappears, starts hanging outside of windows of friends and family in a terribly unnatural way, and by night two, BARLOW makes his presence known in another poor kid's kitchen. At that point, my Mom and I, both holding on to our heroic dog Ginger, were glued to this story and to the floor/recliner.  Smart?  Nope.  This was terrifying... but we both loved a good story.  A trait all of us kids inherited from Mom.   The subject of both the book and the movie come up in family discussions to this day.  I for one, won't forget my Mom and I's monumental battle against Stephen King's goddamned imagination.

I just watched Salem's Lot during the Halloween Season last fall and it holds up remarkably well despite some dated clothing and hairstyles.  David Soul plays a great tortured soul (Do you believe a thing can be inherently evil?), a young Bonnie Bedelia as his paramour, and James Kerwin, who was a TV star at the time on a show called "James at 15", whose star was soon to fade, rounded out the cast.   Bedelia was amazing on the recent dramedy, Parenthood that just finished its run on NBC.  It appears her career actually outlasted the others, who were much bigger stars at the time.

The Lot means a lot (pun intended) to me.  The affore-mentioned Linda left a yellow copy of "The Shining" laying around that I read over the course of a couple of weeks in late 1982.  I really loved this Stephen King guy!  Even at 11 years old.  My Mom, very excited by how I had taken to reading, bagged up a bunch of her old paperbacks and drove me down to a now-legendary store in Kenosha, WI. called The Paperback Exchange.   Not as much a bookstore as a trade-in library, the place's selection was incredible.  I traded in those donated novels of my Mom's into a stack of Stephen King's work.  The Dead Zone, The Stand, Night Shift, Firestarter, and of course, Salem's Lot, among others.  The book still packed a mean punch when I finally read it in the summer of 1983. 

Linda sparked the fire, my Ma stoked it, and I couldn't have been happier.  Talk about support and encouragement! That's how it's done. Of course, Stephen King is one of the most famous novelists of all time, and is experiencing a bit of a renaissance as we speak, but back then, when he was just starting to exercise his dominance, I was all in. 

And in a late fall evening of 1979, his work crossed media avenues to attack my unexpecting mother and myself, and I'll never forget it.   

And I'll always be grateful for it.













Thursday, March 1, 2018

Looking for Laughs: Music



My step-dad (only using that term for the purpose of differentiation) was always one to support my interests; sports, card collection, my kids, ad infinitum.  At one point in middle school, to follow in his footsteps (and possibly avoid a bus-ride home) I stayed after school and joined the Washington Junior High Band to be a trumpet playing Wildcat.  (Dad wasn't a wildcat, but he did shred on a trumpet, infinitely better than I ever would.)  Such a badass.

Anyway, the afternoon Mom, Dad, and I went to the music store to rent my trumpet was special for more than one reason.   This was in the days (it makes me feel old to make this upcoming description, so should I throw in the word "Sonny" at the end of it?) where musical instrument and sheet music stores often had very sizeable vinyl record departments.   As did department stores like Sears, Montgomery Ward, et al.  My Dad was a bit of a social butterfly, so as he was chattering away with the person behind the counter that he probably knew (interesting fun fact: by 1984, my Dad knew approximately 77% of the adult population of Kenosha, WI.) I asked another person in the store if they had the new record by Weird Al Yankovic.

"Eat It" was a huge hit at the moment, and being a connoisseur of things that made fun of other things that I didn't particularly enjoy (like Michael Jackson's "Beat It") I was interested in picking up the album, should they have it.  To my true surprise, this mom-and-pop establishment indeed did carry a brand spankin' new copy of "In 3-D", the most recent full-length from Mr. Yankovic.   Dad was more than happy to pay the $6.99 for the new record and made my afternoon.

Listening to "In 3-D" was the beginning of my realization that often, the best of Weird Al's work were the "deep cuts" on his records.   The mainstream parodies were his bread and butter, but his originals were often more vital-sounding, and certainly funnier.  I found myself looking forward to these off-tracks, for lack of a better term, on subsequent albums, as well as his consistently hilarious Polka medleys and "style parodies".  I have been, for over 30 years, a fan of his and will continue to be.  His work will never grow old, as he changes with the culture.  Al, a comedy chameleon of the highest order, was a gift given to me by the "Dr. Demento" radio show that I listened to every Sunday night after "The Young Ones" was over with on MTV.  The Doc gets his own post in this series, so I'm moving on here.


So Dad knew about musical parody, and put in an order at the record store that same day for a collection of the best of  Spike Jones and his City Slickers.  Jones' music was in vogue in the 40's and 50's.  Not so much parody material, and if it were, I wouldn't have been too familiar with the original. The bands tunes consisted of zany slapstick takes of classical pieces, and relevant-to-its time comedy.  A personal favorite of mine was "Der Fuhrer's Face" a direct comedic kick-in-the-nuts to Adolf Hitler. 



Most kids would have frowned on this "old fogey comedy" because Spike Jones was a good 35 to 40 years ahead of my era.  This was 1984, after all.  "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and "The Safety Dance" shared air time with Cyndi Lauper and Billy Joel.  The gap was wide and would have been difficult to traverse for most kids.  Not me.

Listening with my Dad and watching his massive grin grow as we heard the goofy horse race play-by-play on the "William Tell Overture", or the ridiculous vocal machinations on "Chloe" and "Hawaiian War Chant" are some of my favorite quiet moments.  I miss that breathy quiet laugh-turned-chuckle of his. (It was quiet, like he was trying not to laugh).  You saw it, more than you heard it, but you sure as hell felt it, and it was contagious.


My Dad shared other classic comedy with me beyond just Spike Jones.  It's just one of the many ways that he shaped me, and I'm very grateful.