Monday, December 9, 2019

Those Quiet Moments I : Schofield Summer Sky

After an 18 month stay in Waco, Texas and 6 more in Kenosha, Wisconsin, my parents decided a more slight nudge to the north was needed.   We scooted another 300 miles north to central Wisconsin to the town of Schofield, a quasi-suburb of Wausau, the metroplex of the center of the state.  This would be home for only my next couple of years, as trade school would soon call me back to Kenosha.

But this is about an evening.  Some moments in an evening, actually.  We had only been in an apartment complex on Mount View in Schofield for a few weeks, and for some reason sleep had been difficult.  My bedroom was smaller than I was used to, and I was sleeping on the lower bunk of a heavy wooden set of bunk beds.  It was a very balmy June evening, one not quite warm enough to prompt mom to turn the air conditioner on, but kept me under a single sheet as I struggled to find slumber somewhere. 

As I often did back then, long before sharing a bed with another, I wandered to fight off insomnia.  I sat up, in my sweat pants and tee-shirt, yawned, and trekked over to my small bedroom window.  

The sky looked odd.  Strange enough to stir a weird and uncomfortable feeling in my gut.

What the hell is going on up there?

I pulled my shoes out from under my bed and made my way down the hall and out of our apartment entrance.  It was the middle of the night, the witching hour, so I was as quiet as I could be as I walked out the pair of huge heavy doors that constituted the entrance to the apartment building.  There was a large empty field adjacent to the complex that I made use of.  When friends and family came, we threw the ball around out there for hours, played pick up football games, occasionally pitched tents for an evening of sleep outdoors.  I walked out to the middle of this grassy anomaly, surrounded by other apartment buildings, a large quantity of deciduous trees, and a quiet, seldom used road.  It was then, with a Coke in my hand, that I looked straight up into the sky.

And spilled the Coke that I had just opened.

The stars.  I had never seen so many in one place, and thought skies like this were impossible. Unless it was an image on TV that I always thought was somehow doctored, even long before the era of PhotoShop.   I no longer felt that way.  It wasn't just the sheer volume of stars, it was the way they were positioned across the sky in waves and in clusters, both crystal clear and soft-lens blurred.  this  created a twinkling glow that wasn't like a full moon but provided enough light to make out my surroundings....

I rubbed my eyes.   Closed them.  Rubbed them once more and looked back up.

Nope, still there.

Good God, it was beautiful.  It looked like someone has spread the astral bodies across the sky with a butter knife. I'd never seen it like that before, and don't know that I ever have since.  I'd read somewhere that northern midwest skies are sometimes given to unnatural clarity and even appearances of the Northern Lights, which years later I would actually see myself resulting in more spills.  (that's another story) But here above my head, was the proof.  Those skies that I had always chalked up to special effects and visual man-made magic were not only possible....

but right in front of my face.

I don't know how long I stood there. It may have been an hour.  I was afraid it would never happen again so I wanted to cement in my memory as much as humanly possible.  My only regret was given the late hour, I had no one to share it with.  No one would believe this when I relayed it in the morning.

But as the years have gone by, I'm kind of glad that I have it to myself.

































I

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Year of the Autograph


August

A handful of years back, I found myself entrenched in a sort of bargain-book-hunting mode.   Looking at second hand stores, Library re-sale gatherings and internet sales bins was a bit of fun for a short stretch.

It all really began at a Dollar Tree.  I was there picking up a couple of odds and ends, on a replenish errand, when I walked past the almost always weak-ass book section.  Generally at a Dollar Tree, this is where you find overstock, and more often than not it will be of the less than quality variety.  This is usually the case, but when it isn't, its the exception to the rule.

Charlie Newton has burned a path as a cult crime writer of some aplomb.  He's been doing it for years and the reviews show he knows what he is doing.  There, stuffed between some Fox News host's inept attempt at musing and 35 copies of Victor Cruz' autobiography, there was a hardcover copy of Start Shooting.  Genuinely surprised to see it there, I plucked it from the chaff and headed to the check out.  

It wasn't until a couple weeks later when I cracked it open that I saw his broad looping signature on the title page.  That's a tad stunning, I thought to myself...  I didn't think much of it and after not being able to confirm whether or not it was his scrawl there, (there's no real reason to doubt it is) I put it away.  I just thought I got lucky.

September

Over the years, I had somehow lost Bart Starr's nifty autobiography, My Life in Football.   It had managed to become a possessional apparition of mine that's absence was nagging at me a bit. No true history-loving Green Bay Packers devotee should be without this tome.  On Amazon.com, I found a hardcover original of it, for .01 plus shipping.  Shocked to see the item that cheap, I acted without delay to order it.   Since it was ordered via the Marketplace and not the site's warehouse, it took weeks to arrive.  When it finally did, I was truly surprised by the excellent condition of the book, and opened it quickly to examine it, beginning the usual search for yellowing, ripped pages, stains, etc.  

There it was on the title page.  In this particular case however, my heart skipped a beat; 

"To Dennis, Bart Starr".   

There was no mistaking the great one's signature.  I don't know who the hell Dennis is, (if that is his real name) but, Oh, it was Bart's autograph to be sure.  I ran to the web to confirm anyway, and was proven right.   Now THAT is a piece to be happy about.  Talk about the luck that was starting to flow here....I now had a signed copy of the living legend,  who while coached by the great Vince Lombardi, had won 5 titles in 7 years.  Bart had held this book in his hands and wrote in it.

Now it's mine.

August


The local Public Library's Friends sale is a heck of a cause and occasion, and the wife and editor usually visit annually.  It was the final day of the event, which means you get to fill a standard grocery bag with books for a mere $10.00.   Frani and I had a couple of bags filled up to the brim level, and I had noticed a copy of Richard Stark's Backflash on one of the many tables Now Stark's name is not one that graced many covers at this event, so I picked it up and pointed it out to Frani. 

"Pity.  I've read this one." I mumbled.

Frani looked at me in the way she usually does when I'm being a moron and said, "Just toss it in, it's $10.00 a bag."  I shrugged and tossed in the book by the great Donald E. Westlake's alter-ego and continued to browse.  It wasn't until I opened the book just before shelving it that I saw, above the title on that page, Donald E. Westlake's signature.

Off to the net I returned and confirmed it.  The great mystery/crime/suspense legend's scribbled name was there above his nom de plume, and real.  Holy Shit, folks.  This was getting weirder by the minute.

November

I like to frequent Half Price Books.  More often than not, I don't get anything.  But I do like to sift through the vinyl that smells like a 70's basement.  The DVD selection is frequently compelling, they have a selection of vintage books, (though more often than not those are less than interesting), you'll find VHS tapes that need to be browsed through as I search for that evasive copy of 1982's Tom Skerrit/Patti LuPone epic, Fighting Back, and also existing there is the DVD clearance rack.  There's a reason it's a clearance rack, but I've found many a gem in these sections, usually priced at $1.00 to $2.00.  One day, the Criterion Collection's disc of Kevin Smith's Chasing Amy joined that category.

Spotting this autograph was accidental.  The movie popped open, and the film's accompanying leaflet got stuck in the case when I attempted to snap it closed.  Remedying the issue, I spotted it. 

Jason "Jay & Silent Bob" Mewes' signature was emblazoned on the leaflet.  Back to the internet to confirm again, and confirmed it was.  Someone at a convention took the film to get signed by Jay, then pawned it off at a Half Price Books.

I don't get it either, but there it is.   Definitely a weird one, there. 

December

I mentioned VHS tapes earlier.  Goodwills and Salvation Armys are good places to look for these.  There's a couple flicks out there, like the affore-mentioned Fighting Back, that have sacreligiously never been released on DVD.  Like Corey Haim searching for the other copies of Batman #14 in The Lost Boys, I remain vigilant.  

Breezing through the books as a lark at a Salvation Army, I came across a hardcover copy of Rod Serling's Twilight Zone.  It is simply a collection of short-story-ized episodes of the seminal show put together by Walter Gibson.   Neat enough, I thought, and grabbed it for the staggering cost of .75. 

When I got home an opened it, there it was.  The piece de resistance of cover page dedications...

Rod Serling?

No. 

William Shatner?

No.

Harlan Ellison, Richard Matheson, ....  Ray Bradbury?

No.

Dated Christmas Day, 1983 was the inscription:

"To my good friend, Phil.  A True Homo.  
                          -Mamph"


Can't win 'em all, I guess is the lesson in this instance.  This stunning display of bro-tolerance from 26 years ago has contributed, at the very least, in me looking at the inside of every book I come across. 

Author's signature?  It's a possibility.  An actor or director involved in some form or fashion of the work purchased?  Perhaps.

Or just character slaughter from one bud to another.  Who knows?


But, for yet another reason,  I remain vigilant.




Sunday, June 9, 2019

Vinyl Destination: The Buddy Holly Story

It's true that Gary Busey has become one of Hollywood's true oddballs.  But before his weird Amazon Fire Stick commercials, his moronic Trump support, and his in general "Weird...-OH!" status (a term coined by my beautiful wife and editor who doesn't get enough Mom props) he was a legit character actor of actual worthiness of respect and gained renown.



Let's not forget the 80's and early 90's.  His turn as Mr. Joshua in the Shane Black-scripted "Lethal Weapon" is actually kind of scary. 

"Mind if I test drive your Audi?"

His Uncle Red literally steals the movie from Corey Haim and Megan Follows in the Stephen King-written "Silver Bullet".  I will also say the film formed from King's calendar-based novella "Cycle of the Werewolf" is one of the most underrated horror films of the 80's as well as a criminally disrespected werewolf flick.   A terrific performance.

Who can forget Angelo Pappas?  Keanu Reeves' rookie FBI agent really rankled his quasi-mentor, Busey's character, and Busey conveys all of that and more with panache.  Plus, he's funny as well.

"Utah!  Get me two"

In 1978, Busey was actually nominated for best actor for his turn as Buddy Holly in "The Buddy Holly Story". A pretty nifty film in general, it really takes off during the musical sequences. A nice thing about the tunes is that all the music you're seeing in the film is actually performed by Busey, and his on-screen Crickets, Charles Martin Smith and Don Stroud. These 3 really light it up, and those segments of the film really WORK. They Rock. The soundtrack is a great grab, as I stumbled on it at a local second hand store. It's like listening to a really good tribute band.

   

 And for Hollywood, especially in 1978, that's saying a lot.


Thursday, May 9, 2019

Baseball as Religion Part III: Ephemera

I've notated it more than once on this blog, the effect of baseball on my youthful life.  Especially in 1982.

I became a completionist that year as well.

It started in the fall of that year.  A trip to a convenience store with my sisters Linda and Pee Wee had me spending the 50 cents I had in my pocket (Linda covered the sales tax) on a pair of Topps baseball wax packs.

Yes, they were that cheap, and you got 15 of those rosary beads in one shot, along with that pink, brittle, and powdered stick of what apparently was gum.  It was awesome.

Still have two of the yield from that day, worse for wear,  and you can see them below:


1982's Topps series was probably among the least attractive of their baseball sets, but I wasn't aware of the aesthetics in the moment.  Sadly, it was late in the year, the shelf-space wouldn't be occupied by baseball cards much longer, as Halloween and Christmas items would begin to replace them, but the appetite was whetted for my new hobby.  That same fall, a trip to Ben Franklin (the noted five and dime store my Mom liked to frequent) brought to my attention the Topps baseball sticker album.  The whole book was only 25 cents. Where they got you was the packs of stickers required to fill it.  They charged .25 a pack, and you got about 7 per pack, if memory serves.  Mind you, this was 1982.  A quarter was not breaking the bank, even that far back.  So trying to fill these things was a blast and something fun my dad and I did together.  I wasn't able to put very many in the album, for as was the case with the cards, the time for the stickers to be on the shelf was short.   So I would bide my time for next season.



This was just on the fringes of the era where adults would come in and ruin a kids' activity (as they did with comic books and record collecting) with appraisal, marketing, price guides, inserts, and chase cards.  All that miserable shit was just around the corner.  The piece de resistance of card collecting at that time was simply finding or trading for a player's "rookie" card.  Nowadays that term doesn't really matter all that much.  People just want that 1 in 300 pack insert opportunity that has turned the hobby from hero worship into slot machine-lottery ticket buying.  I'm getting off topic here, as a bitter old man is wont to do.

Back to Dad and I.   He really was a backer of my interest.  So much so, that he'd often stop on the way home from work and pick up several packs of cards or stickers.  He'd then hide them in various spots around the house for me to find.  It was a ton of fun looking for the packs between couch cushions, between books on shelves, tucked amongst the breakfast cereal.  As good as he was with hiding small items, Dad was practical with the overflow too.  Like with the Reggie Jackson-emblazoned 1983 sticker album. When doubles started to build up, we picked up a second album and put them in that book.  Eventually, we did fill the first one, but ended up having to buy so many packs to get the last couple to fill it, we filled 3/4 of a second one. Along the way, Dad was just as interested and having as much fun with it as I was.  Realistically, this would be difficult to do today, as 25 cents just doesn't go as far as it once did.

One year for Christmas, my parents shocked me with complete sets of 1982 and 1983 Topps baseball cards.  When Donald Trump collapsed the USFL with his raging litigiousness, he rushed across town and bought me the only sets the Waco, Texas sports card shop carried.  He contributed the 1963 Pete Rose to my collection, as well as the coveted 1984 Donruss Don Mattingly, among many others. In hindsight, that may seem frivolous to many, but over the years those cards eventually became financial backing for a young man yet to be blessed with health insurance, and saved his ass from either of the unwanted fates of not getting needed health care, or going into massive debt getting it.

I seem to remember him making the prediction that this was a possibility over 35 years ago, and 8 years before it became true. Thanks, Dad.  Imagine doing something so that was so much fun at the time, and down the road it ended up with a result somewhat like playing the stock market with cleverness.  

I do miss those cards now that most of them are now gone, but damn if it wasn't a hoot of an investment.

















Sunday, May 5, 2019

Baseball as Religion Part II: The Home Run Book





Let's start by talking about the home run.

Chicks dig the long ball.

That's an old phrase that pretty much means "go big".

Baseball was a big part of the coping mechanism of my youth.  It distracted, it soothed, it shaved edges.  It made blood flow.

And as any good cleric in any religion, I studied.  I studied it hard.  I absorbed the biblical sports page, joined the choir in the highlight videos, watched ESPN Sportscenter (in its infancy, of course), and memorized library books and the backs of baseball cards.  I became an ardent attendee of summertime sermons on Superstation TBS and WGN, becoming an ancillary fan of the Atlanta Braves and Chicago Cubs in the process.

I became such a savant that for Christmas, dear old Dad had note pads printed that were emblazoned with a cartoon figure of some cat swinging a bat.  The headline of these pads?

Who will tell me about baseball?   ROB WILL.

All that being said, The Milwaukee Brewers were, and still are, the principal drivers of a baseball passion that does still exist in a much less feverish form now.

But it was different back then.  Watch The Sandlot, listen to Daniel Stern's monologue in City Slickers, and you'll get my meaning.  I was up with the sun, catching and hitting balls (with friends or without) until it went down again.  Evenings were spent with my besties, monks from the temple of the national pastime, playing Milton Bradley's Championship Baseball or watching games on the tube.  Rainouts were seldom cause for sadness as the local channels ran highlight films of World Series past until the game returned, expanding my already impressive knowledge of the game.

Rob Will, acolyte of the Diamond.  How's that for baseball religion allegory work?

Anyways, back to the long ball.  Any sports fans loves the quick score.  The 80 yard bomb in Football.  The Clutch 3 in basketball.  But neither are quite as majestic as the home run ball.  Someone, preferably from my team, tacking a hard rawhide encircled ball of twine and literally driving it further than a football field with a stick.

After the sphere has been thrown at them, often at over 90 miles per hour, no less.

The glorious home run ball is comprised of a long arcing tracer missile ascending into the night air, accompanied by the rising vocal excitement of the paid faithful, a piece of excitement only matched by its descent into the crowd, signaling the satisfying confirmation of runs scored.

It's even better when it's late in the game, more importantly in the post-season.  Bobby Thompson, Kirk Gibson, and Bucky Dent....I'm talking to you.


So, there it was one spring day.  6th grade.  Right there in the iconic publication called the Weekly Reader.  The Home Run Book.  The Topps' Home Run Book, no less.  Who better to put together an encyclopedia of the best baseball had to offer in the round-tripper department than the premier manufacturer of the rosary beads of the sport, the baseball card.  Each cardboard saint came in a wax pack accompanied by wonderful facts and stats, introduced by the whiff of the powder pink residue scent of the stick bubble gum.  A gift from the baseball deity,  this book was my catechism, a pocket prayer book for the baseball seminary.

In it's tiny form, it listed out all the vital stats on the men who hit the most home runs.  A pocket history of the dinger's legends.  Categorized by career 400, 500,  and 600 home run hitters, and of course finishing with the two who filled the 700 homer category, Ruth and Aaron. The book obviously predated Bonds by many years, but it doesn't matter.  I don't care how many that steroid-infused twatwaffle hit, Aaron is still number one.

Don't argue with me.  I'll excommunicate you from my beautiful baseball religion.

After the book's home run hall of fame, was a segment consisting of simple home-run related tidbits, that while not as informative or colorful, were still fun. Topps' The Home Run Book was a compendium of knowledge on the most exciting moments in the grand old game, and those that elicited the most of them.

Every day of the summer of 1983, this young monk, still growing in the baseball priesthood, read one chapter.  He took in the stories of the great popes of his religion.

And remembered them.







The Spectrum Files: The Wanderers




In the late 70's and early 80's it seemed that movies involving street gangs were kinda in.  Walter Hill's The Warriors raked in box office cash (while inciting riots), The Outsiders had everybody talking, and Boulevard Nights was quite popular as well.  Something about that us vs. them mentality of these films must have tapped into America's zeitgeist at the time. I myself was too young to tie anything together in that regard.

And then there was The Wanderers. 

What can I say about Philip Kaufman's take on Richard Price's novel?   A lot.  As a kid I liked it for reasons that it really doesn't hold up for now.  The "tough talking" kids battling over territory, the wise-crack humor, the street battles?  As a 10 year old, I guess these things may seem attractive, but I feel almost embarrassed at the fact that these plot points (particularly in this film) were what drew me to it.  Those elements now seem juvenile.  They aren't so cool anymore. Not even close.

In reality, what's good about the film now differs greatly.

Other films, (American Graffiti and Grease, in particular) show a strange similarity with The Wanderers regarding the late 50's and early 60's.  The commonality is these hyperkinetic, fast-talking,  annoying teenagers with what seem to be boundless energy and limitless stupidity.  Due to these common denominators, I'm led to believe people that acted like that were somehow the era's norm.  That shit would have driven me insane.  I may have been forced to deal Ritalin on the street corner to quell the loudness of my schoolmates.  Of course these films' young Category 5 morons hung around brutish sleepy-eyed Lords of Flatbush look-a-likes that pretended to have a grip on things, but were really just as dumb (and scared) as the hang-abouts running circles around them.

The Wanderers is a bizarre film indeed.  It takes place in1963 New York, and in this particular neighborhood all of the kids appear to be members of different gangs as opposed to cliques, and none of them get along.  Besides the titular gang whose members are all of Italian descent, there's the bizarre Baldies, the all-Asian Wongs, and a final gang comprised of the neighborhood's African American representatives, the Del Bombers.  It is a bit of a cartoonish separation of sorts, but by films end, there seems to be a peace brought about by familiarity that actually works despite the insanity.

This stylistic exclamation of visual differences (shown in even-more neon exaggeration in The Warriors) was one of the things that drew me to it as a kid.  Did I want to be in a comic book gang or something?  God, I hope not.

There's one more gang that I will refer to in a separate paragraph.  When these guys, known as The DuckyBoys, are on screen the film takes a creepy, if not disturbing tone.  This gang is huge, and seems to be comprised of child molesters in training.  They take things to a level the rest of the "kids" in this film are hesitant to go to, and for good reason.  That level is awful, violent, and laced with sadism.  The DuckyBoys send out an aura of cult-like violence that seems to cast them in almost a boogeyman light for the rest of the gangs in the film.  They are indeed frightening.

Oddly, I don't really remember the DuckyBoys from the Spectrum days.  It was only in a recent re-watching that I was taken aback by these DuckyBoy sequences and found them to be the most striking of the film. 

Much of the dialogue, especially early on in the film is racist, vile, and stupid, much like most of the principals.  Sadly, it is probably representative of the era and the location, and I'm sure the filmmakers are aware of this.  It doesn't come across as a message, but a recording.  Make no mistake, The Wanderers are young, dumb, and lack the ability to function as human beings.  Their development of that much-needed quality, a degree of maturity, is what the movie is about.  In my recent viewing, I wondered what the hell I ever saw in most of these low-lifes as an adolescent.  I really did.

The performances in this movie are excellent by all involved.  The cast was comprised mostly of then-unknowns, but Kaufman picked the right crew to lead this film.  Ken Wahl is excellent in his film debut as the leader of The Wanderers.  He was a good-looking youngster with screen presence and toughness, but had no trouble conveying his character being in over his head.  Also outstanding is a young actor named Tony Ganios as Perry, a quiet but pivotal character.  His performance is subtle, often intimidating, and vulnerable.  Perry quietly often proves to be more of a leader than Wahl's Richie, but never tries to subvert The Wanderers.

There's really not a sour note in any of the acting in the film.  Early on, the energy level of a few characters make it difficult to concentrate, but it comes together nicely if you can get through the early maelstrom twisting across the screen.  When I was a ten year old, I found myself liking Ken Wahl's character a lot.  37 years later, it was Ganios' Perry that struck me as the most interesting and satisfying of the film.

The conflicts, battles, and spastic energy of the film and its characters is what kept me hooked multiple times as a youngster.  All that seems superfluous now, as the The Wanderers sudden growing realization that the world is shifting becomes something I didn't notice back then, but gives the movie its current existing power.  Their world is changing hard, violently, and without patience.  It will not wait for The Wanderers, and it's both beautiful, sad, and often powerful to see how all the different members of the gang face that knowledge.

It's amazing how times changed for me too.  Many years ago,  (after an older sister almost blocked my viewing due to a just-after-the-Orion Pictures-production-logo interlude between Wahl's Richie and his girl) I absorbed a truly strange, kinetic, sometimes confusing, and often violent film and really dug The Wanderers a lot.

I do now, too.  Just for completely different reasons.














Sunday, April 28, 2019

The Spectrum Files: Cleveland Smith




Often during pauses between Spectrum's features, there would be short films. Some of them innocuous, others surprisingly disturbing, others heralding an era that Spectrum could have no way of knowing they were previewing.

Everyone by now is aware that Sam Raimi came out of Michigan in the late 70's, friends in tow, and embarked slowly but surely on the pathway to becoming a Hollywood legend.  The films he's responsible for are the first Spider-Man trilogy, Drag Me to Hell, and Oz, the Great and Powerful, not to mention the cult trilogy that spawned a successful television series, Evil Dead.  Many of the friends of his that I mentioned still work in the business in one form or another. The most famous of which is probably Bruce Campbell, an actor who worked his way up from B-films to supporting roles in A-list pics, to eventually becoming a small screen icon with a taste for occasionally directing.

Some of Raimi's friends made a short film way back when that starred Campbell (and Raimi as a nazi) called Cleveland Smith, Bounty Hunter, a parody of the hugely famous Raiders of the Lost Ark.  One evening, while I was bouncing around the tube, Spectrum dropped Cleveland Smith.  Somehow these enterprising youngsters had managed to get their short little film broadcast on television.  Michigan, as you know, isn't far from Wisconsin and Illinois, so its not logistically impossible that this would happen, but it spells out how entrepreneurial these young men were in attempting to get their material out there to be seen.  Especially during the 3-year long intensive blitz to get the original Evil Dead made and distributed.

I had forgotten Smith a long time ago, but during my Bruce Campbell hero-worship phase of 25 years ago, little flashes of recognition bubbled up in my consciousness that I couldn't quite get a handle on in my memory.  It was eventually clarified and confirmed when I read Campbell's hilarious autobiography, If Chins Could Kill, springing me to a website on Campbell that mentioned the film in detail.


Spectrum.  Film School for Wisconsin Youngsters, and heralds of the cinematic future.

For Your viewing pleasure, Cleveland Smith, Bounty Hunter.


 "Oh, Dear God, a towering Oak!"