Saturday, December 30, 2017

Excelsior! Five Things to Thank Stan Lee For on His Birthday

            It was Stan Lee’s birthday the other day. Smilin’ Stan turned 95 and certainly doesn’t look the part of a near-centenarian, although I think part of that ability to slow the hands of time might have something to do with the fact that he’s rocked the receding hairline/moustache-and-tinted glasses combo for so long it’s as if he were always planning for a long stay on this plane of consciousness. In honor of the man who founded the House of Ideas back in the early 1960s (along of course with the help of Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, and a host of others), let’s reflect on five things that mark the importance of this bedrock of our popular culture, and national treasure:

1) He helped to create the modern comic book: No, Stan Lee is not actually old enough to have invented comic books, but he did give the medium a massive creative upgrade when the company for whom he was longtime writer and editor, Atlas Comics, changed its name to Marvel and began dabbling in genres outside of sci-fi and giant monsters. Working alongside Kirby and others, Lee developed the so-called Marvel Method – let the writer come up with an idea or outline, give it to the artist to essentially plot and draw, then fill in the dialogue afterwards. This process streamlined production and enabled the company to get quickly up to speed with its more established rivals at National/DC. More importantly, it was Lee who focused intently on bringing characterization and motives in his characters, something that had never been tried before yet worked to perfection in Lee’s hands.

2) He gave credit to individual creators: In the early days, comic books and the comic book industry didn’t have much of a public face – the writers and artists worked anonymously, eking out a living without ever getting much credit. In contrast, it was Stan Lee who began not only including full lists of who did what (including inkers and letterers), but also began adding colorful descriptors for each. So, now there was Jack “King” Kirby, “Sturdy” Steve Ditko, and so on. This would go on to become an industry standard, started by Lee.

3) He developed a whole generation of talent: When Lee began working in the comics industry, for Timely (later Atlas/Marvel) in the early 1940s the medium was brand-new and the staples of comic book culture we take for granted today didn’t exist; the fan base had to be built from the ground up, which in the 1940s consisted mostly of pre-teen boys and, during World War II, soldier serving abroad. By the time Marvel was in its heyday, however, those kids read those Timely comics like ‘Captain America’ were all grown up and ready to work in the industry. And right from the beginning Stan Lee pounced on the best of them, starting with writer and editor Roy Thomas. And, when you consider all the great and talented people Lee and Thomas brought in during the 1970s, then Stan the Man’s contribution to nurturing talent cannot be overlooked or overstated.

4) He opened the door to the mass-marketing of comic books: From gimmicks like 45 rpm records put out for members of the Merry Marvel Marching Society to using his own distinctive voice to narrate some of the cartoon adaptations of Marvel characters, Lee was forever working to boost the profile of the company’s product. Over time, he came to be known not only as the face of Marvel, but also of the industry itself, and comics could not have asked for a better goodwill ambassador. As comic book movies took off in the 2000s its was Lee’s obligatory Hitchcockian cameos that fans look for, one of the hallmarks of the (mostly) successful film franchises involving the company’s characters.

5) He dared to dream: When comic books began as a medium, no-one ever gave any thought to their use as anything other than disposable entertainment. In fact, not long after Atlas made the switch over to the Marvel imprint Lee was in fact contemplating leaving the industry. Along with some encouragement from his wife, he instead rolled up his sleeves and took on an important assignment from his then-boss and brother-in-law, Martin Goodman: create out of whole cloth a new superhero team book. Along with Jack Kirby, Stan Lee did just that, but he did it his way. If he had not created the Fantastic Four, then Spider-Man most likely never would’ve happened, the X-Men would not have come into being, and so on. Lee stepped up to the plate and helped to change the course of an industry, and had he not have done so, the world of fiction would not have been the same.

Monday, March 20, 2017

Rest in Power, American Shakespeare: The Majesty of Chuck Berry

               Chuck Berry died this past weekend. He was 90 years old, and so it’s really not that surprising that he passed on, but it was still kind of jarring. After all, Berry was one of the early rock-n-roll greats, a genius of the electric guitar, a talented showman, a brilliant songwriter, and a snappy dresser to boot. But, how you sometimes know true greatness is when it permeates the public conscious and renders itself accessible even to those least likely to get it. If you’re over the age of 35, I defy you not to name a time, party or jam session at somebody’s garage or living room, where you haven’t heard some balding, mustachioed middle manager friend of your friend’s, resplendent in baseball cap and beer gut, crank out a crude version of Berry’s classic ‘Johnny B. Goode’ on a beat-up Stratocaster or pawn shop knock-off brand. Everybody’s been at that party and hung out with that dude, and while he might not have had a clue how to play Chuck Berry’s riffs on a guitar, his very existence should be testament in and of itself to the pervasive influence of St. Louis, Missouri’s number one musical son. The fact that even the most uncool of the uncool know Chuck’s music, well, that speaks volumes.

            If you love rock-n-roll, you have a Chuck Berry story. My own personal experience with Berry as a performer came in the late 1980s when I was bussing tables at a Ruby Tuesday in the mall up the road from the house I grew up in in the New Orleans suburbs. The famed 50s rock icon was coming to town, and for several weeks at the beginning of 1988 there were these ads on the radio promoting the show:

Hey New Orleans! Get Ready for Chuck Berry!

You know, I would listen to that ad, and I would think, ‘Gee, what I wouldn’t give to see this guy play live!’. And then I would wonder about how much it would cost and getting to the show (I basically didn’t have a car until I was 23 and didn’t get good at driving until well into my 30s) and into the show, and I had a sinking feeling it wasn’t going to happen for me. But fate and friends in the restaurant industry lent a helping hand. There was this waiter at the Ruby Tuesday’s, this blonde guy with a perpetual grin, like a coyote’s grin, who did some roadie work on these big stadium tours. Having an all-abiding passion for rock-n-roll at the time I was ecstatic when he mentioned at the end of a shift one day that Chuck Berry was coming to town, and would I like to help pick up a few chairs at the end of the show, my reward being a free seat in the house for the concert?

Oh, what was a poor boy from Jefferson Parish supposed to do?

            Of course, I said yes and when the evening of the show came around my friend picked me up, we spent a little time at somebody’s place, er, getting some party favors and by the time we grabbed a couple of nosebleed seats up in the rafters of the University of New Orleans’ Lakefront Arena we were feeling pretty high on the experience of being there. It was dark up in those rafters, and the stage, set in the middle of what was usually reserved for college basketball, was set in the middle of the floor and seemed a couple miles down below. There was a small crowd, bigger than a bar-sized crowd but certainly not filled to capacity, and yet in spite of the size of the audience you could feel this vibe in the room, this giddy excitement over seeing one of the foundational pillars of the great art of rock-n-roll strolled up to confront the crowd.

And Chuck Berry did not disappoint.

            He wore this brown suit and, aside from a slight stoop in his posture, resembled almost exactly pictures I’d seen of him in his glory days. All the pieces of the puzzle were there – the cocky stance, the slightly receding hairline done in some kind of Jet Age pomade, the Gibson semi-hollow body guitar slung on his hip. The band in the back were ciphers, a bunch of white guys sporting mullets who probably were locals and had a gig at a Holiday Inn somewhere off of Highway 90, headed east out of town. One of the weird things about Chuck Berry, and by reputation he had a lot of personal quirks, was that he never brought his own backing band on tour; it was up to the venue to do that. So, on any given night you might catch Chuck with anything from a pack of disinterested jazz hacks between gigs at a seafood restaurant to the Steve Miller Band.

            It didn’t matter the night I saw him. Looking like a wizened dime store Indian in that chocolate-colored suit, Berry strode up to the microphone and bellowed something along the lines of, “How ya’ll doin’ tonight? Everybody feel alright?” Then, his practiced hands cranking the strings of the Gibson with his left hand, his right tensed and picking out the chords, he launched into one of the songs on his set. It’s 30 years on, so I do not recall which song it was, except I’m fairly certain it wasn’t ‘Johnny B. Goode’, nor was it ‘Maybellene’. Whichever one it was, it was awesome. And, being up there high above the fray I could see for myself why this guy had such an impact on every generation of rock-n-rollers who’d followed him. Everything you wanted in a show, everything you’d like to see in a performer, was there.

There was the guitar, the thing they always talked about first when they talked about Chuck Berry. There was his growling, sardonic vocals. There was the grin you couldn’t see from all that distance away, but you could feel somehow. And, there was simply the knowledge of being confronted with the reality of Berry onstage. Even blitzed out of my mind as I was, I still felt as though I were in the presence of someone who, then in his early 60s, was not quite an urban legend yet more than just a guy with a guitar strapped across his chest. This was History we were being entertained by, and you couldn’t help but feel the gravitas of the moment; here was something you’d never seen before, but would remember for as long as you were alive.

Nothing stopped Chuck Berry in live performance. Not a PA speaker catching on fire while he was playing. Not the fact that the band, familiar with the material but not up to speed with their one-night employer’s on-stage cues or idiosyncrasies, lumbered and lurched in places as it struggled to keep up with the master. Not even the time when, the order of the set list having apparently slipped his mind, he replayed a couple of numbers twice. Berry cranked out one classic rock-n-roll tune after the next which must’ve been easy for him since, after all, he wrote all of them. When the show began to wind down and a crowd of a couple dozen or so lucky ladies in the front were invited onstage to dance with the performer, the cumulative end result was transcendent, greater than the sum of its parts. It was rock-n-roll the way it’s meant to be played, by the man who kept the blueprints in his back pocket, the keys to the kingdom lost in the forgotten neural synapses in his brain.

The power of this man was something to behold live but, ultimately, I think the lasting testament to his music are the recordings, which changed the way people thought about music, especially his earliest fans. It was those early sides Chuck Berry recorded for Chess that put the kick into the backbeat of the Beatles, tempering their more Anglo obsessions with the Everly Brothers and Gene Vincent. And you can’t even talk about a band called the Rolling Stones without accepting the fact that, essentially, their entire sound and style were ripped right from Berry (it’s been said that Stones founder and longtime keyboardist Ian Stewart, upon meeting Keith Richards for the first time and hearing him play, derided him as a “Chuck Berry artist”). Listen to the so-called World’s Greatest Rock-n-Roll Band play ‘Brown Sugar’ off their classic album Sticky Fingers, and you can hear it – this is an updated version of a Chuck Berry tune, from the odd ‘hey look at me’ tempo of the opening riff to Bobby Keys’ honking 50s-style saxophone solo. Chuck didn’t use the sax much in his recordings, but the feel that Mick Jagger, Richards, and the rest of the team are going for is purely that of the ’Brown Eyed Handsome Man’.  

The Beatles and the Stones, the great two-headed monster of the British Invasion that made so many great records and convinced so many kids all across the world that they, too, had something to say with a guitar, a set of drums and a garage to practice in. Without Chuck Berry, what would’ve happened? Well, both bands would probably still have existed, and would’ve still been great, but no Chuck means the Beatles don’t sound the same; they just don’t. The Rolling Stones don’t sound remotely the same, and what effect would that have had on all the others in the decades afterwards who aped the Stones from the look of their flamboyant pouty-lipped singer to those Chuck Berry-influenced opening riffs and that chestnut of rock-n-roll that can be traced directly back to its originator, the obligatory mid-song guitar solo.

Sure, others soloed in the 1950s and some were arguably better soloists (Cliff Gallup would be a good example). But, it was Berry’s unique set of contributions that not only did he place the primacy of the guitar over the piano which, in the hands of Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis, had not yet given up its frontline position in this new music which was sweeping the youth of the world by storm. Berry also made the guitar the primary songwriting instrument of choice for the next generation of rock-n-rollers, and a lot of other people besides. As an example, you don’t think 60s hardcore folk singer Phil Ochs didn’t listen to 50s rock-n-roll? Think he didn’t have respect for Chuck Berry? Guess again! No-one would ever confuse Ochs with somebody who didn’t know his way around songwriting, and yet in spite of being in a different planet stylistically he clearly got his start as so many of us have – listening to 50s artists like Chuck Berry, and trying to copy what he was doing, inspired by his brilliant example.

There are an infinite number of other examples of Berry’s omnipresent influence, from Detroit’s MC5 to The Faces to Judas Priest even. I could keep this up all night. And when you think about the influence that all of these bands had, and all the bands that copied them in return, then you have to come back to two basic facts about the history of popular music over the last 60 years.

Chuck Berry invented rock-n-roll.

Also, he personified it.

            That Chuck created this most wholly American and majestic of art forms is not in dispute by any rational thinking human familiar with the history. But, I maintain that, rather than being considered a first among equals among the pantheon of early rock greats that carved out such a swath far in excess of their numbers, it was Mr. Berry who truly represented everything that was great about the art form, in one total package. It could’ve all gone differently had Chuck decided to stick to hairdressing and give up on that silly pipe dream of creating something that could let him play in Black blues nightclubs and cracker hillbilly country music halls. Such was the world he grew up in, and the one he interacted with. And, such was his unique genius that he was able to combine his formidable skills with six-stringed electric instruments, an amazing comprehension of the English language and in particular an ear for poetry and an eye for describing the ordinary in extraordinary ways, and a talent for walking like a duck, and sell it to teenagers. What more all-American story is that?

If you love rock-n-roll, this isn’t like some singer dying.

It’s not like the 2016 loss of some of the greatest artists in rock history.

It’s a little like finding out there was an American Shakespeare.

And, now he’s gone.

Rest in Power, Chuck Berry.

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Meet John Doe and Then, Meet John Doe There and Back Again

            There was a time when in my life when my whole world, the one that mattered to me, was a very small room with white walls and some kind of radio/cassette recorder, a jam box whose origins were either the display case at a Radio Shack or possibly something a relative got for me.  I was 16 in 1985, and about a year removed from the death of my father.  The nerve endings were still raw, and in a lot of ways I think the tumult of that time was such that I couldn’t even have stepped back to grasp what I’d just been through.  My aunt and cousins didn’t understand – and my aunt’s advice for dealing with such a traumatic episode was to basically sit me down one day and say, ‘Get over it!’, or words to that effect.  I’d walk along the highway, the roads leading out of our suburb on the West Bank of the Mississippi River, or I’d venture across that mighty body of bubbling, churning water via a quick trip on the ferry, and everywhere I went I saw people that just didn’t get it.  If I’m honest with myself most days of my life still seemed filled with the blank faces of strangers who would neither care nor empathize with the darker corners of my memory.  And, I’ll bet in most cases if I asked them to stop for a moment and consider what I’d been through they’d give me the same answer my aunt did all those years ago.  Our deepest pains are always our cross to bear.

            But, when I was 16 there was this one constant companion, something that never judged, that only provided inspiration and sustenance of a spiritual nature: that jam box, small and with its tiny speakers, and that spoke to me in the language of rock-n-roll.  I learned a lot of things from that little machine.  There was the magic of songs and how to write them.  Stories in interviews or in the songs themselves that told me there was some sort of true artistic expression to be had in picking up a guitar or a harmonica, and just talking about how you felt. And, there were the bands themselves, the people who wrote and played the language that blasted with as much fury as the warbly speakers in that undersized plastic gizmo could muster energy for out into the air molecules of my most lonely of lonely rooms.  There were the New York Dolls, something I picked up in earnest after listening to a few tracks of their stuff on WTUL, Tulane University’s radio station which, at the time, was the chief repository of ‘college rock’ in New Orleans. Motorhead’s ‘Another Perfect Day’ was an important piece of the puzzle, this new language I was trying to understand as a respite from my grief, as was Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ ‘Pack Up the Plantation’ live cassette.

And of course there was X, who I’ve written about here, and also here.

            X was and remains my all-time favorite band.  The one I’ve looked up to and hero-worshipped for the better part of 30 years.  Of all the new syntax that I was absorbing in that tumultuous period theirs was the most direct, most poignant, that I felt I was listening to. Sure, it was punk rock and that in and of itself was not that far afield from the Ramones or Violent Femmes or (on the rare occasions I would listen to them) Black Flag. Stylistically a little different maybe, but good rock-n-roll is just good rock-n-roll, and when you get a feel for the good stuff, which takes a while, you know it when you hear it. What made X different I guess was that there was this, I don’t know, this controlled anger at the heart of it.  Not the raw in-your-face bombast of, say, Henry Rollins of Black Flag but that was something I could kind of relate to.  It’s easy to lash out in pain, or in frustration. To do so in such a way that touches people, that you can sing along with or dance to or in some other way interact with, that’s more of a delicate balancing act.  That’s something special.

            And, so in a way it’s funny that, given all the conversations I’ve had with guys who sport Platinum records on the walls of their palatial homes or various members of bands I’ve accosted or spent time in the company of in the crude ink sketches of the many-layered canvas that was my extended sojourn into the world of nightclubbing, the only member of my all-time favorite band I’ve ever actually talked to is its bass player, co-lead vocalist and conscience, a fella who calls himself John Doe.  That’s not his given name, I don’t believe, and if memory serves the name itself comes from some old movie from the 40s or thereabouts, ‘Meet John Doe’.  So, yes, I’ve met John Doe but the funny thing is, I’ve met him a bunch of times over the decades.  I doubt that he remembers me when it happens, the glamorous world of entertainment being one where you surely must meet a lot of people, but he always has time to talk to me.  That’s true of course for just about anybody who’s a fan, who comes up to speak with him in the afterglow of another live performance, in another town on the way to the next town.  I’ve never known the guy to not be approachable no matter what the circumstances – sometimes your heroes are every bit as much as what you cracked them up to be.

            The first time I crossed paths with this individual was in 1989 or 90, I think.  X was on hiatus following the one-two punch of Billy Zoom quitting and John and Exene Cervenka’s marriage falling apart all around the same period, mid 80s.  Later they would all get back together as one big happy family to tour, but this time out there was just the band’s former bassist, now sporting a record contract with one of David Geffen’s companies and out to prove he could stand on his own.  The show was at Tipitina’s, uptown New Orleans on Tchoupitoulas St.  Doe was playing on a weird off-night, I want to say a Monday. I’d read about his band in a puff piece in Tower Records’ magazine when I was perusing the magazine rack there one day a few weeks previous, marveling at the line-up that the former X frontman had assembled for his debut.  Everyone from Dwight Yoakum’s drummer to Richard Lloyd, the guitarist opposite Tom Verlaine in the famed 70s New York band Television, was on the payroll (a funny aside here: more than a decade later, when I was living in Austin, I watched John Dee Graham play a set at the Continental Club and remarked to him after the show how much his band’s guitar sound reminded me of Television; as luck would have it, the other guitarist opposite Lloyd that night at Tipitina’s all those years back was, yes, John Dee Graham). Sounded like a super backing crew, and eclectic to boot, just the kind of outfit Doe would put together.  I recall standing at the lip of the impossibly tall stage at Tipitina’s, staring up in wonder at Richard Lloyd’s feet as the blonde musician set up his well-worn collection of Boss or Digitech guitar pedals, set up atop a board with all of the separate units strung together like the lights on a Christmas tree.  These were the legends of rock-n-roll, these sort of men.  Furrowing their brows and downing the obligatory swigs off a long-neck beer bottle or from a small shot glass of brown-tinted whiskey, they would blast away on their selection of tunes in the sweltering New Orleans heat amidst the assembled throngs of the teeming crowd for our amusement.  So, this was then the fulfillment of all that time taking in that magical new language I’d spent so much time ingesting as a 16 year-old, this kind of night.  I was about 20, legal (the drinking age was only 18 in the city then) and now, after several years of hero worship and much contemplation of what was to come, I was about to See John Doe perform, if not exactly meet him.

            Doe got up on stage in front of the band, resplendent in this brown-and-white cowboy shirt, not quite a Nudie suit but a more subdued affair. On the loudspeakers the news of the New Orleans Saints’ loss to the San Francisco 49ers was percolating around the atmosphere of the bar, Monday Night Football being as usual more than a little cruel to the followers of the Black-and Gold in those days.  John Doe surveyed the crowd, a big grin stretched across his face, and he said, “Hey, sorry to hear about your team losing.  That stuff is just a bunch of big guys beating each other up!”

Then, they kicked into it.

It was a heck of a show.

            Afterwards, I hung around the side of the stage, and to be honest I don’t recall having a particular reason for doing so.  So, I’m standing around looking off into space and who should emerge from the shadows but the singer himself, a kind of triumphant look on his face.  It was him, and so I did the obvious thing and for the first time got to Meet John Doe.  I introduced myself and Doe said, “Hi, Craig!”  Obviously, he didn’t need to do the same given that we both knew who he was.  That was the extent of the conversation, and I didn’t get but a brief chance to thank him for making Los Angeles, which was alright.  Doe was off to the next conversation and I was left wondering if there was more to it than that to meet the people who made the voices that had animated my jam box just a few years before; apparently, that was pretty much all there was to it.

            I wasn’t to meet John Doe again until almost a decade later, or about a decade actually.  In the mid-90s I’d dropped out of circulation to take up a job in oil and gas services.  That was a good gig from a payout standpoint (I’ve never had what you would call a traditional career and have been on the ‘gig economy’ profile in terms of how I earn a living long before it became fashionable), but after about two years I began to get a bit of a longing for the old life I’d had, the one I’d given up as I thought that was what you were supposed to do when you grew up.  I was at this coffee shop when I saw it, this flyer for something called ‘The John Doe Thing’ at this French Quarter bar called the Shim Sham Club. The Shim Sham Club at the time was a pretty happening spot, and there were a number of great bands both locally and from out-of-town that were there on any given night (I’ll never forget the time I walked in off the street, asked who was playing, and found myself a few hours later catching a set by legendary psycho-billy pioneer Hasil Adkins).  One other notable feature about the place was that it had its own burlesque troupe, the Shim-Shammettes, primarily a collection of comely veterans of that most infamous of Bourbon Street’s notoriously seedy strip clubs, Big Daddy’s, slumming as 50s-style dancers of the pasties-and-a-g-string variety.  Around 2000 this place had a real buzz around it; there was always stuff going on.

            There were three main areas to the Shim-Sham Club.  One was the traditional French Quarter bar in the front, behind the oaken edifice rows upon rows of just about every spirit known to humanity short of Absinthe (which, sadly, made a big comeback after like a century’s long absence a few short years after I left town) situated around an imposing bar mirror that looked as though it had seen a thousand fights, ten thousand inebriated make-out sessions, and just about every smoke, drink, and the smokers and drinkers who consume them as had ever lived on God’s Green Earth.  Upstairs was a lounge area that was a study in crimson: red bulbs in the fixtures, red covers on the table lamps, and to the best of my recollection over the dim rim of a shot glass of memory red vinyl couches.  The name of this spot was something Devil-themed, and the best story I ever overheard while hanging out downstairs was from some burly-armed barmaid and Gulf War vet recollecting the use of that upstairs couch by a member of the Irish band the Pogues and one easily impressionable female fan of the band who’d shown up the night they’d played the Shim Sham and had made the mistake of pouring out her woes to said member of the ensemble, who in turn managed to get her on said couch after the show for some, oh, cheering up or something.

            In the back was where they had the shows.  And, this was kind of the weird part.  The stage itself was large and of a professional quality, large enough to house anything from Irish tin-whistle ensembles to a dozen or so scantily-clad women festooned in fishnet stockings, feather boas and matching giant torso-obscuring feather fans, with an old-school Vegas Strip style backing band alongside that!  It was certainly big enough to host whatever John Doe from X, now bereft of his bigshot deal with David Geffen but still I was sure had the fire in the belly to put on one of his profoundly moving live performances, was bringing with him that evening. But, the odd part of the Shim Sham’s concert area was the scenery that was stapled to the walls. There were these white picket-fence props, like something from a production of Our Town that had been left up in haste by the previous tenants of the building, perhaps a dinner theater that would’ve been better served taking up residence out in Harahan or Little Farms or some other subset of neighboring Jefferson Parish. There might’ve also been some trees and I want to say like a farm-house thing along one wall; seeing as how most of the times I was back there I, too, had often had a few tee many martoonis, with additives, and all of this happened over 15 years ago as of this writing I could be a little sketchy on some of the gritty details. Regardless, it was an odd choice for a bar that catered to a clientele that dressed like extras from either a Nick Cave or Tom Waits video, depending on the night of course.

            There were two acts playing that night, John Doe and his crew, and one Cindy Lee Berryhill.  I found this personally amusing given that, many years previous, I had actually gotten a copy of Cindy Lee Berryhill’s first record on cassette (I gave up on LPs when I was about 13, I think, and got most of my music in cassette format), Naked Movie Star, again off a conveniently placed recommendation in Tower Records’ puff piece freebee. And, you know, it was actually pretty good.  So, this was kind of a pleasant surprise, then.  About a decade after she trotted out such never-heard-of-‘em classics as ‘Gary Handeman’ (still my favorite Berryhill number, for what that’s worth), Cindy Lee appeared by herself onstage in front of a good 200 or so people, dressed head-to-toe in black, like 50s counter-culture Beatnik black, holding a red semi-hollow body electric guitar. And, she just got up there, cracked a few jokes and played songs off her new record at the time; sadly, I don’t recall her doing ‘Gary Handeman’, even though I requested it out loud. 

After her set, but before John Doe and co. took the stage, I went over to Ms. Berryhill and regaled her of my high opinion of the one record of hers I had owned in my Quarter Rat days and her eyes kind of lit up, you know, like the look of a woman who’d been wandering without provisions in the desert for a few days, and I’d just dangled a mustard-splashed corn dog in front of her.  “And, I really liked the new stuff’” I said, “I just wished you could’ve played ‘Gary Handeman’.”
 Then I asked her, “So, how did you end up opening for John Doe on this tour?”

Berryhill’s reply was priceless, and it said a lot about the guy who was about to get on stage.  “Well, John liked my new CD, and he sent me a fan letter telling me how good it was!”

This went on for a few minutes longer than most of my typically abbreviated conversations with sort-of famous people, and it was only after she walked away that I realized that, to her, I was probably hitting on her.  I look upon the near-miss with Miss Berryhill as one of the bigger missed cues in my time spent nightclubbing; if I’d kept at it, I might’ve ended up playing bass on a couple of her records as Mr. Cindy Lee Berryhill, but hindsight is always 20-20.
It was time for the John Doe Thing to get on stage. The crowd was fervent with anticipation!  Drunk X fans were shouting for ‘White Girl’ or ‘In This House That I Call Home’ to be played!  I kept thinking it would be another all-star round-up like the early 90s show but, low and behold, the John Doe Thing in its turn-of-the-century incarnation was just John armed with an old Guild electric, X’s master musician drummer DJ Bonebreak, and a bass player with long hair named Drew. 

I mean, that was it. 

That was the whole Thing.

            But, it was great.  Here you had Doe, his face a little more lined than the time I’d seen him a decade before, looking otherwise tan and trim and leading his two partners in crime through a selection of the fresh stuff off his new album.  There were no guitar solos (after hanging out with guys like Billy Zoom, Dave Alvin and Richard Lloyd I guess John figured there was no point in pushing the fish-out-of-water bit).  There was a little bit of drama when the front man’s amp began to sizzle, and I can’t recall if the thing blew up outright or simply had to be given a swift kick to its midsection to continue to perform, but the technical glitch didn’t spoil the festivities.  John did in fact play a couple of X numbers, including ‘White Girl’, but what really struck me about the vibe in that room that night was that, you know, here you had this world-famous rock star guy, someone who’d taken fake punches from Patrick Swayze in Roadhouse and been Julianne Moore’s porn star’s long-suffering ex-husband in Boogie Nights, somebody who’d been just an eyelash from mega-fame prior to the tanking of X’s disastrous Ain’t Love Grand record, and he’s in this room with a bunch of fans of his old band, and it was like almost this high school reunion sort of environment.  One thing that truly separates X fans from the pack, in at least as has been my personal experience, is the genuine degree of affection that exists between the band’s members and those fans.  You know, I’d like to think sometimes it was just me, but I’ve been to shows where the group did like three encores and the like, and I can testify that if there is one true, honest-to-goodness troubadour out there who actually cares what his fans think, and cares on some level about them, it’s John Doe. And, believe me, the fans feel the same way.

            Afterwards I all but accidentally ran over Drew the bass player as we both made for the same door to the front of the house, and I told him how much I liked the group.  Sensing where this was going, Drew helpfully suggested that “maybe you should talk to John”, and I thought to myself, ‘Gee, why didn’t I think of that?’  So, I made my way back into the Our Town dinner theater/concert hall, and off to the side, sitting in semi-darkness and a little sweaty, was Mr. Doe.  Yes, I got to Meet John Doe for a second time (like that’s a surprise, right?). This was more of an actual conversation, with a guy who’d been through the opposite end of the celebrity wormhole and had come out the other end seemingly more sober if not less cheerful.  When I told John that I was impressed with how the new band sounded and how, if I’d just walked in off the street and not been a fan, how impressed I would’ve been with the new material he did like this fist pump and blurted out a “Yes!’ to go with it.  It was such a strange contrast though.  The John Doe I’d briefly chatted with at Tipitina’s was the same guy I met that evening at the Shim Sham, only now he didn’t look as big and rock star-like as the time before.  It was not that I was any less of a fan boy, but I think in maturity you realize that even your heroes, no matter how ginormous they may appear on a stage or the silver screen well, sometimes they don’t measure up to Brobdingnagian proportions because nobody in real life is ever that big to begin with. No, not even Andre the Giant.

            The last Meet John Doe story I have (and there are, of course, others, and I’m sure some of you reading this who may be X fans have your own to tell as well) to share here is from around 2007, in Austin at a club on 6th St.  This was a Knitters show, and again that’s one of the things that’s great about being a fan of this particular artist – John Doe has been in so many bands, and more importantly so many good bands, that if you live in a place that’s along his touring circuit as Austin was you’re bound to have multiple chances to catch him live per year.  For the uninitiated, the Knitters were John and Exene Cervenka of X’s mid-80s country project, basically X save with the Blasters’ Dave Alvin (who briefly handled guitar chores in X after Billy Zoom left) on guitar and an upright bass player handling the bottom chores.  For this mid-2000s show Doe showed up in, if memory serves, like this rose-colored shirt, like a 70s-era crooner.  Strumming along with his acoustic guitar, he absolutely ripped this version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Silver Wings’, and watching that I couldn’t help but wonder what this guy could’ve done in another era as a vocal stylist working the boards of Opryland in Nashville; one of the things that to me makes John Doe the presence that he is in American music is the way he can use the same outstanding voice in so many musical idioms, and with outlaw country he fares nearly as well as any of the Highwaymen.  After he finished, the rest of the band took the stage and belted out Knitters tunes old and new.  What was fun about the performance was that John and Exene, who’ve probably been through a fair amount of drama over the years, dropped any pretense of doing a serious show and basically did like this live, on-stage reenactment of an Opryland parody, I think there were even poster board cut-outs of corn stalks, maybe a cow or two, behind the band although almost a decade on the details are kind of sketchy.  And of course the rest of the band was dressed like Ma and Pa Kettle – it was like an episode of ‘Hee-Haw!’ with punk rock credentials.

            For my part, I stood on the side of the stage by this wooden post, near one of the PA speakers.  Standing next to me was this attractive woman with long brown chestnut hair that kind of cascaded down her back, really nice-looking lady.  Naturally I struck up a conversation and had a hard time placing her accent until she told me she was from upstate New York or someplace but had lived in New Zealand for like the previous four years.  Her husband was still down there in Auckland or Wellington or one of those other towns, attending to selling their home there while they completed the transition to A-town.  “I’m a huge Dave Alvin fan,” she told me into my ear between loud blasts of guitars and hokey, cornpone dialogue on the stage.  “I’d really like to get his autograph after the show!” she continued, perhaps thinking that I had some pull with the band, which I obviously didn’t, due to the familiarity I had with the subject of my All-Time Fave musical outfit.  Neither of us had a backstage pass but it occurred to me, being pretty savvy on the nature of those alleyways they put behind all the bars on 6th St., that there might be another option.  “I got an idea,” I told her while the Knitters belted out the strangest version of Steppenwolf’s ‘Born to Be Wild’ I think I’ve ever heard, towards the end of the performance. “Let’s hang out backstage after the show ends, and we’ll just ask Mr. Alvin to put his John Hancock on your t-shirt there.” 

“Yes!  Let’s do that!” she exclaimed, and before you could shake a lamb’s tail I found myself with this New Zealand transplant lady outside in the mid-summer Austin heat in this alley next to a foul dumpster, right within striking distance of the lonesome backstage door that I was sure was the one attached to the bar we were just in.  We waited for Dave Alvin, his signature balding head and blonde goatee, to pop through that door.  He didn’t show.  A few other people not in the band came out into the night and disappeared off to the hotel or the tour bus or wherever they were staying, but still no Alvin. After the better part of 20 minutes someone walking through that exit way my new pal and I were watching with  anticipation mentioned that the mighty Blasters man was already gone but, as luck would have it, mere seconds later a familiar, weather-lined face and rose-colored shirt appeared, looking all kinds of tired and with probably a beer and a shot or two swimming through his system, accompanied by a small entourage of a couple of people.  Sometimes in the glamorous world of rock-n-roll you have to assess a situation, helping somebody get a prized moment with a sort-of famous person versus taking up said person’s time and need for very valuable sleep, and once you do the weighing of that, which in a case like this can only take a split-second of fevered concentration, you have to act.  This was one of those times.

“Mr Doe!” I belted out at the bedraggled figure in front of me. “This lady traveled all the way from New Zealand, and she would really like your autograph!”

John Doe looked up at me for a second, shrugged his shoulders, and took the time to chat with us briefly and sign the woman’s shirt.

That’s just the kind of guy he is, Mr. John Doe, and if you meet him, I’ll bet he’ll treat you...

Exactly the same.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

One Night at The Drafthouse: An Almost-Review of the Venture Bros. Season VI Opener

            I haven’t owned a television since Poppy Bush was president.  No, really, I don’t own one of those things and don’t see a great need to.  So when something comes on that I want to watch, but don’t have the device and/or internet hook-up at home (yes, call me a Luddite but I as of the present am not online in my humble abode) to indulge in said bit of entertainment, well naturally there’s the imperative to get creative.  There is, in fact, only one show that’s out there that I really, really enjoy: Venture Bros.  I first got into this particular program a few years ago from reading about it on various blogs and seeing clips on Youtube, and after I caught an episode I think on Adult Swim’s website I decided I had to have the whole thing.  So, I went on the prowl to every Hastings and Barnes & Noble in town until I’d cobbled together  a DVD collection what has been up to this point five glorious seasons of what some call the best cartoon made in the free world (since we don’t know exactly what goes on in North Korea and other remote pockets of humanity, the possibility however remote exists that Kim Jong Un or some other elegantly-coiffed despot has greenlit a more compelling saga of animated fiction in their bailiwick, although I wouldn’t bet on it).

            Pure pleasure, all 60 some-odd installments documenting the exploits of Dr. Thaddeus ‘Rusty’ Venture and the incredibly naïve clones of his sons, their various bodyguards, fellow ‘super-scientists’, butterfly-themed costumed antagonists and all the rest.  If the show had a new season every fall I would probably break down and get one of those Orwellian big-screen devices from Target just so I could watch this one program, but as it is Venture Bros. is an intermittently produced creature of the fervently creative brain trust of its authors/artists/voice actors Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, who keep the working schedule of, say, late-70s Led Zeppelin in terms of the timeliness of releasing new seasons.  You get what you pay for, though, and while it takes these guys a good while to churn out another 8-13 half-hour snapshots in Rusty Venture’s life it’s always worth the wait.  I caught the bug again over the last four months or so from clips released by Adult Swim on various comic book websites (yes, I do still access the internet at coffee shops and the proof of that is, if I didn’t you wouldn’t be reading this right now, would you?) and so was stoked when the word went out that fresh Venture product would soon hit the airwaves.

            Problem is, if you don’t have a TV, and you don’t have the internet at home do you really want to wait until the DVD comes out to get to the latest slice of the narrative?  Sure, I could download the new episodes of I-Tunes whilst waiting for my peppermint hot tea from the pick-up counter at Starbucks, but why go to all that trouble when there are cinematic options available?  Thank God and the people at the Alamo Drafthouse, but I sure didn’t have to sink so low!  As it turned out, even here in the relatively disconnected milieu of Lubbock, Texas the hipster theater chain, for the uninitiated basically the Starbucks of high-priced film emporiums, was showing the season opener of Venture Bros. on the big screen.  Goodie for me!  After perusing my collection of the previous five seasons on my tiny laptop I was going to a real theater to sit in a spacious Alamo Drafthouse seat with a bunch of fellow would-be smug aficionados of the delectable animated confection, watching with rapt attention every nook and cranny of this production on a giant movie screen, in the same place where I saw the new Star Wars just before Christmas.  This was worth staying up on a Sunday night past my usual bedtime (it’s my experience that the pain of Monday is always muted somewhat by a good night’s sleep the night before).  So, I got my ticket online ahead of the big weekend rush and got to the theater an hour before the show was to start.

Now, I lived in Austin for the better part of seven years, and those who’ve read my writing on this topic know my feelings on the bipolar nature of that town.  If you have money and/or are a student at one of A-Town’s pristine academic institutions such as the burnt orange-tinged octopus on Guadalupe Ave. that is the University of Texas, you can have a wonderful time in that city.  If you’re not in such circumstances, the way can be quite the opposite, and the meaner side of that experience, the telemarketing rooms, faceless apartment complexes and strip clubs, was the part that, sadly, I was more familiar with. The Alamo Drafthouse theater chain that was spawned from the sunny, SXSW-and-‘Live Music Capitol of the World’ touristy side is a perfect A-Town product.  What’s amazing about the Lubbock location, which I’m sure is consistent with similar such franchises that have sprouted up around the country in the last decade or so, is that it manages to capture the snobbish feel of the original only bottled up amidst shiny surfaces and tastefully understated lighting with a bar, like an airport watering hole, adjacent to the ticket counter.  Unlike hitting a Tinseltown or some other mega-screens galore movie complex at the mall, the Alamo experience is calculated to make you feel as though seeing even something as trivial as the new Pixar kid’s feature or another godawful reel of corporate comedian’s shtick (Ben Stiller, Amy Schumer, take your pick of whomever the Hollywood flavor of the month is) can be placed on equal terms with a retrospective of Quentin Tarantino’s catalogue, which isn’t that much of a stretch given that at any given time both ends of the spectrum are routinely available on its upcoming schedule.  Best of all, and this must be where they really make their money, the Alamo Drafthouse has a menu of hipster-ish items for the delectation of the film patron that, at least from the descriptions on the bill of sale, rival the culinary delights of some legendary Sixth Street locale like Casino El Camino, although I can tell you nothing beats the burgers and the humongous orders of cheese fries from that place, but I digress.      

Given that I was going to what constituted one of the relatively hipper things to do in one of the closest places there was to a hip place to view it, I wasn’t surprised that the line to get into the Venture Bros. premier was rife with what in the Hub City passed for actual hipsters.  In a town crawling with stegosaurus-sized Ford F-150s and gun stores where you can buy Barrett .50 cal. bolt-action sniper rifles like the ones JSOC probably uses to kill Mujahedin up in the mountains of Afghanistan the sight of a salt-and-pepper goateed white dude sporting a black t-shirt with Something Cool (a graphic of an album cover by an obscure British Goth band or perhaps the iconic shot from the DVD jacket of The Devil’s Rejects) on the front is actually pretty rare.  Tonight, this strangely balmy late January Sunday night that it was, had likely all two-or-three dozen of said-such Lubbock-dwelling individuals all packed into the relatively cozy lobby of the Drafthouse like so many extras seeking a spot in the crowd scenes of a new Kevin Smith project, along with their equally-hipsterish girlfriends, some of whom seemed to know as much about what we were about to see as their self-absorbed significant others.  A few patrons even went as characters from the show, including the obligatory Dr. Mrs. the Monarch (in this case, a short, somewhat pudgy woman with an ample chest that strained, appropriately for the character, against the black spandex of her costume), a stereotypical Monarch henchman (complete with bright orange non-functional wings), and even a Sergeant Hatred-and-Princess Tiny Feet worshipping couple (and, if you aren’t familiar with the references watch the show, for Pete’s sake – I can’t do all the work here, now can I?). 

I think the highlight of standing in line for the show was the oversized cardboard standee for the upcoming Deadpool movie, on which I used as a backdrop while I clipped off a few selfies with my flip phone, which I’ll post with this should I ever figure out how to get the photos off said device without having to pay for the web browser that comes with the thing.  Now there’s a comic that’ll never see the light of day, but should: Craig Higgins and Deadpool.  If only I had the money, and could pay Rob Liefield or Jim Lee to render the tale of me in four colors as this squinting, three-days stubble bristling, overly-muscled tough guy sporting multiple leather-pouches on his pants and way-big-sizes-too-many handguns leering like cobras from either of his meaty paws, with the Merc with a Mouth riding shotgun, then I could truly die in peace, or at least utter embarrassment!

But I’m mixing my adolescent power fantasy metaphors here, or something.  Let’s get back to the Land of Venture.  So, the hour in the line with all the pseudo-hipsters wound down, the imaginary velvet rope was lifted, and the throng of the faithful was allowed into the hallowed hall of Theater Eight, where my pre-selected seat beckoned for me.  As we were led into the darkened room a couple of people were handing out free stuff in honor of the event – I got a white t-shirt that said ‘I Venture-Bros.-logo VB’ on the front in black letters (I’m guessing this was a play on the old ‘I Heart NY’ promotional put out by some enterprising Big Apple tourist commission flunky several decades ago) and this poster featuring a Wonder Woman-sort of tough lady glowering over longtime Venture stalwart Brock Samson dressed like a Roman gladiator in pitched combat with a Medusa who resembled the late Shelly Winters, only if Shelly Winters was a Medusa.  Not a bad haul considering the price, a token $5 snack fee for snacks that were never forthcoming, although in fairness I’ve been to the Alamo on more than a few occasions and wondered exactly why I put out almost ten bucks plus eight more for a commemorative glass just to say I watched Crimson Peak, so I can hardly call this particular event a rip-off by any means.

Inside the theater, there was a loop of appropriately Alamo Drafthouse ‘hipster-goofy’ alternating clips of a bunch of clowns from a Cleveland suburb dressing up as thrift store versions of ‘The Avengers’ and what, as far as I could tell, were highlights from some South Asian children’s superhero action feature, with a square-jawed fellow sporting a burgundy spandex suit locking horns in the sky with a bearded, pot-bellied vampire who had to lift his facial locks to fire a crude laser effect from some clunky gold-plated hubcap suspended over his chest, all to the tune of David Bowie’s ‘Heroes’.  The soundtrack was entirely appropriate, and poignant given that Venture creators Publick and Hammer are huge Bowie fans and spent the first few seasons of the show dropping references to the late, great Thin White Duke wherever and whenever they could fit them in.  Whether it was the man himself as an unauthorized character on the show for many years, as the crime boss-of-bosses, the Sovereign, the time Pete White appeared on the Halloween special dressed up as Ziggy Stardust or any of a number of supporting characters (the Action Man, a reference to ‘Ashes to Ashes’, from Bowie’s Scary Monsters album), figures briefly seen in crowd shots, and other obscure references, if there is one place where David Bowie will always get the street cred most people seemingly forgot he had decades previous, his work and spirit will forever be immortalized in Venture Bros. And rightfully so – great art and it artists deserve to be intertwined with their best imitators, and lifelong, truly appreciative fans.

One thing that didn’t work all that well was, the announcer for the event was exactly what you’d call a devoted follower like the audience in front of whom he had to speak.  This is probably one of the few features of the original, Austin-based Alamo Drafthouse they couldn’t Starbucks into existence.  I recall in the mid-2000s, before the theater chain began its franchise push in earnest, going to see this independent adaptation of HP Lovecraft’s Call of Cthulu there, and the Emcee seemed to be at least as familiar with the subject material as the throng of Lovecraftians in the audience all chanting ‘Ee-yah!  Ee-yah!’ like the devotees of Dagon in the author’s short story The Ipswich Horror.  Not so the bearded non-entity who was attempting with a noticeable lack of enthusiasm the pumped-up Venture fans this Sunday night of 2016.  He got the names of the episodes wrong (somehow ‘Bot Seeks Bot’ became ‘Bot Seeking Bot’, a miscue not perhaps noticeable to fans of the latest Seth MacFarlane parody but way out of place in a gathering of anal-retentive geeks and fanboys in the assembly that evening) on multiple occasions, and to top it off didn’t even seem to have a clue as to who the characters were portrayed by the few people who did show up in costume for the pre-cartoon costume contest that was specified as part of the festivities for the program.  That’s the thing about geek culture, something even the show’s creators rightfully lament from time to time: if you don’t get the little details right somebody, somewhere out there in the ether of the outer limits of social media is going to notice it, and is going to complain. As it was, the costume contest went off as reasonable success, and just about everybody who dressed up (by my count, I think only five people actually showed up in Ventures’ drag, and there were only five prizes) got something for their efforts.  I strained at the leash to refrain from heading up there myself only to grab the microphone and display my adept imitation of Dr. Mrs. the Monarch’s voice for the adoring crowd, but since I wasn’t in costume it just didn’t seem like the right thing to do; in hindsight, I should’ve cut a deal with the woman who dressed up as Dr. the Mrs. to work up a duo act.

Finally, after all the hoopla and with a delectable hot chocolate as my beverage of choice, I and the rest of the patrons sat back and indulged in ‘Bot Seeks Bot’, the most recent hour-long special ‘All This and Gargantua 2’ (which the hack announcer from the Lubbock Alamo kept insisting was titled ‘All This and Galactica 2’) and then, finally and after a wait of more than two years, the opening stanza in the sixth season of the Saga of Venture. There was Rusty clutching his dead dwarf brother’s will in his hands, the document which placed the pill-popping titular protagonist in charge of a multi-billion dollar corporation.  There was the fallout of the shake-up of the leadership of the Guild of Calamitous Intent in the aftermath of the crack-up and death of the Sovereign (a bitter, coincidental, and wholly unintentional bit of foreshadowing of the passing of the real David Bowie), with Dr. Mrs. the Monarch having to cope with a new, corpulent pinstripe suit-wearing villain called Wide Whale pawing her while attempting to talk her into an offer she evidently couldn’t refuse.  There was a giant giraffe and a team of superheroes that included the Amazon caricature from my poster along with yet another white guy who wore a lot of purple and sported trick bow-and-arrows, with the arrow tips shaped like feet (watch the episode, and it’ll all make sense, believe me), and another guy who, basically, looked like the unnatural love child of Captain America and Dr. Frankenfurter from The Rocky Horror Picture Show.  There was indestructible bodyguard Brock Samson, ably voiced as always by the incomparable Patrick Warburton, reporting for duty in his old post while the previous bodyguard Sergeant Hatred scowled in the shadows, still looking out for Rusty and his progeny.

And, there was the Night Dick.

Don’t worry. He was just a guy dressed like the Spirit,

and he rode this motorcycle that could climb walls.
            And so it went, for a gloriously short 30 minutes until the credits ran, the house lights came up and it was time to go home.  When I sat down to write this, I thought back to all the other Ventures-related stuff I’d read recently and decided that, in terms of reviews, I couldn’t top what most of these people were doing. Although, to be honest sometimes if I have a gripe with some of my fellow devotees to the program it’s their insistence in taking this epic saga of a cartoon that parodies nearly every cliché from comic books, kid’s action/adventure shows, and any and all other celebrity culture that can be skewered in the course of the series, and just taking it way too seriously.  Get the DVD copies of Venture Bros. and put on the creators’ commentary as the backing track to the episodes, and you can hear it very plainly: Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer are really, really funny guys and their goal, first, foremost, and last, is to have a good time with this and make you laugh, too.  It’s a cartoon, you people! It’s a funny book made into an amazingly well-crafted television series, nothing more and nothing less.  Spoilsports who complain about how there aren’t enough female characters (which is silly, given that by and large the most competent, level-headed characters in the Venture universe are female, even when they’re voiced by Hammer) or have some other diversity-related gripe should check their egos in at the door and make their own gosh-darned animated series, if that’s what it takes to get the sticks out of their collective posteriors. 

Now, if you want to take a shot or three at the Hollywood machine that refuses to nominate people of color for the Oscars, be my guest; when you’re talking Publick and Hammer, two guys that have featured any of a number of genre-busting characters like the flamboyantly gay super-spy Shore Leave, or the diminutive-but-dashing Jonas Venture Jr. or the strong-willed, self-assured Triana Orpheus, to be honest I think the wrong people are being picked on. As far as I can tell, the reason there are so many male characters on Venture Bros. is not that they don’t want to give female cosplayers more options come Dragon Con – rather, it’s because they do nearly all of the voices on the show and, yes, they are both male humans.  I would submit that the next time someone out there on Twitter or Instagram wants to complain to the diversity police about this show they should first set up a crowd-sharing account, and then pony up some money themselves to give to show’s masterminds to fatten their operating budget so they can get a sufficiently large multi-gendered, multi-ethnic cast of actors available to play any of the dozens of new figures who would have to populate the show to satisfy these PC concerns. This may come as a news flash to some, but performers like James Urbaniak and Warburton do not exactly show up in the studio to play Rusty Venture or Brock Samson out of the goodness of their hearts – these guys are working actors, professionals who could just as easily do a rental car commercial as help Jackson and Doc personalize the myriad personalities in their tree fort.

Again, if you don’t like the cartoon the way it is, please go make your own.  And, for the rest of you, just enjoy the thing while it lasts, won’t you?  For all we know, this sixth season could be the final rodeo for this, arguably the best and most comprehensively brilliant, long-running piece of American animation since Warners put out all those Bugs Bunny shorts in the 1940s.

Great art sometimes doesn’t even come along in a lifetime.

Why make a fuss over silly stuff?

Sunday, August 2, 2015

What Faith Would Be Like If Faith Were Real

            Growing up Catholic, church was never exciting, and if you’ve ever been to a Catholic mass you know what I’m talking about.  It’s a place where you keep your faith hidden by design.  First of all, the décor is dark and somber, and nobody talks to each other.  There are few of any hymns, and the limits of audience participation are these bits in the monthly program where the people in the pews mumble out some monotone rendition of some obscure Bible passage.  The parish priest of course is the master of ceremonies.  If you’ve ever hung out with Catholic religious, and I did a fair amount of that my first 14 years, these guys are usually not the life of the party.  Like football coaches or jazz musicians, priests are this secretive bunch with their special seminary training who perform the anodyne rituals, and hear your confession from behind a screen in a booth, like a telephone operator from a half century ago putting in your long distance apology call to Jesus because, you know, for some reason you can’t just pick up the phone and call Him yourself.  But the thing is, and this is important, you almost never get to know the priest as a person – there’s this invisible wall separating God’s representatives from the body public.  This isn’t faith – it’s is a spectator sport and not much of anything else.

‘So then,’ you say, ‘what do you think would be an improvement?’

Good question.

I think the answer may lie in the chapels of the Mormon faith.

            Now, granted I’m new to the team and still finding my way, and when it’s your rookie season in a religion you tend to be a little starry-eyed.  But, I’ve spent as I said a fair amount of time in Christian churches and seen the inside of everything from synagogues to mosques to Zen temples, so I think I’ve been around the block. And I’ve never seen anything at all like the Mormon service.  What’s the special ingredient?  This is going to sound funny, but I think what makes going to church with the Latter Day Saints an experience that reaches out, that can speak to even the outsider, is a very simple concept: democracy in belief.  Mormonism is like your idea of faith if faith were real, if it were kind of cool. And the reason is you get to take part in it.

            For the uninitiated, and that’s who this piece is directed at, this is more or less your Mormon experience as seen by somebody about to take the plunge.  First of all, the chapel is well-lit with plenty of space between the pews – it’s an inviting atmosphere.  The fan of old Hammer Gothic movies in me could do with a stained glass or two, but that’s a minor pet peeve.  The front of the chapel has, facing forward, a small organ for accompaniment, a podium that has this wicked propelling lectern thing on it, and some seats for various people such as the bishop, various speakers of the day, and so on.  Lastly, on the opposite edge of the stage there is this spot where they put out the sacraments which are basically the same as in any Christian service, bread and water to represent Jesus’ body and blood.  So, the layout is pretty standard, but where Mormonism takes off as a fully participatory democracy in action is in the application. 

There are a lot of hymns in LDS service; I mean, compared to say a Catholic mass where nobody gets to do much singing, there’s a lot of hymns going on.  Mind you, this isn’t a bad thing.  Hymns that come off like standard Christian hymns, and other stuff about how families go on forever, ideas unique to the Mormon faith that I don’t fully understand at this point, although I’m working on it. What’s really amazing is, like a bunch of surprisingly skilled karaoke singers in a row at some sports bar that doesn’t serve any drinks (thanks to the Word of Wisdom, a topic for another time), not only do most of the congregation know the words but they’re actually pretty good at singing the songs themselves, as if they’d put some actual practice into these things.  Even taking into account various members having grown up in the church it’s still to my mind an impressive display even for what I’m sure is a relatively small congregation like what we have in Lubbock.

The testimonies are also inspiring, not simply in terms of content but also in the sense that they exist at all.  In all my years growing up Catholic I can’t ever recall a church service such as the one I saw one Sunday, where congregation member after the next went up to that fancy telescopic lectern and told stories, or said nice things about Jesus and the church, or just went into how blown away they were by having traveled in from Salt Lake City to see a town in the middle of nowhere in the Panhandle sporting so many cars in the parking lot outside the chapel the first weekend of August.  This isn’t a priest or a minister in some fancy white vestments trying to find some esoteric meaning out of a Bible passage.  But, Mormon faith is faith in action in a way that George Carlin’s Cardinal in the film Dogma could never have achieved with Buddy Christ and those catchy marketing slogans like Catholicism-Wow! The people that got up on that stage today didn’t need a cartoon Jesus giving them a thumbs-up to make them feel like they were doing something that had relevance.

After testimony of course there’s more of that pretty singing, and then after the service closes out there are classes.  And, yeah, on the surface that sounds pretty boring, too.  But, in the topsy-turvy reality of Latter Day Saint services on Sunday afternoons even class has relevance.  Every little detail of the Sabbath has meaning, and you feel out of place if you don’t do like everybody else and contribute.  Somebody is in the front of the room moderating a discussion out of the book on putting the Gospel into practice, but my point is you feel like you have a place at the table in the discussion, something literally true as you are seated at a table with all the other people who happen to be in that day, kind of a spiritual jam session that’s focused not on abstract ideas of faith but rather on how faith can be put into concrete action.

And, isn’t that the point of religions?  Some of religion is how we deal with questions we can’t answer, but isn’t the useful part of it a guide to how we can live, today, right now?  And, what’s wrong in having a hands-on faith where you feel like you can dialogue and discuss the parameters of belief with like-minded people who are supportive and inquisitive, full of purpose?

This is really what it’s like to spend time with Mormons on Sunday.

It’s what faith would be like if faith were real.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Requiem for The American Dream: Dusty Rhodes, RIP

As I write this, I’ve only just found out about the death of Virgil Runnels, aka the professional wrestler they called Dusty Rhodes, as of around 1AM this morning, several weeks after his passing.  I was in line at the grocery store getting some water, and that’s when I saw it, the headline on the front of one of those tabloids they put in the rack next to the register when you’re checking out.  Rhodes, overweight, bleach-blond warrior off the turnbuckle for decades, had headed off into that big No Holds Barred Cage Match in the Sky.  I have to believe that’s what happened.  Really, that’s kind of the only place a guy like that could go.  Someplace fantastic, and someplace beyond the ken of mortals who looked up at his place in the grappling firmament with great reverence.  He was a popular guy back in the day, the ultimate stereotypical fat man in tights (in the days before WWE impresario Vince McMahon’s steroid casualties) with the strangely engaging smile and not-so-gifted way with a poetic phrase. 

Lots of people around the world who followed the idiom saw Dusty Rhodes, rightly, as one of the greats and in my early teens I was in that number.  Rhodes wasn’t my favorite (that would be the incomparable Sylvester ‘The Junkyard Dog’ Ritter), but like the Beatles or Joe Montana he was, in his own sphere, one of those guys you respected regardless of personal loyalties.  I mean, the man billed himself as ‘The American Dream’.  That, no question about it, is an appellation uttered either by a man possessed by a profound ego or one with a profound sense of irony; I like to think Rhodes was in the latter category.  To understand this commitment towards pro wrestlers you have to understand the era, what it was like and what was going on in America.  The 1970s are often looked upon as this halcyon period of relative economic good times (compared to today, at least), leisure suits, the Bee Gees and disco balls.  But, the reality was actually very different.  More than anything, the 70s were America’s hangover period after the Vietnam War.  Americans had gone off to the jungles of Southeast Asia to fight some allegedly noble crusade against communism and instead had come back beaten and humiliated, like a Roman Legion broken after a setback in Gaul.  For a country that prided itself on its own infatuation with kicking other people’s asses getting its ass kicked by basically a peasant army in a jungle halfway across the world was very difficult to accept.  That sense of, ‘Oh crap, maybe we aren’t what we thought we were’, permeated the culture; everything was covered with its stink, and for several years it seemed like it would never wash off.

Personally, I miss that America.  But, I do remember what replaced it.  And, what replaced it was the era of Ronald Reagan.  Reagan in a lot of ways personified the great American retreat back into denial in the 1980s, into movie stars with windblown hair and perfect chins who flew Tomcat fighter jets for the Navy, or pop singers who kept on smilin’ through videos on MTV, leading pyramids of faceless backup dancers in one three minute pantomime of teenage angst after another.  Browns and plaids as a general color scheme for clothing were out; pastels were in (only in the 1980s could your aunt buy you a loud yellow or teal fuzzy sweater and, as a boy, you could wear it and no-one would look at you funny).  And, at the center of it, was the old cowboy actor who once made a movie with a chimp: the Gipper, the Great Communicator, the Teflon President.  You had Reagan, who often seemed perfectly clueless and who presided over a country that wanted desperately to believe that it was still Number One, never mind what that actually was supposed to even mean.  In the early 1980s you could watch television, the bellwether of the society, and so much of what was there, both local and cable programming, seemed as calculated and robotic as a drum machine on a Casio keyboard synthesizer.  These were the last days before the internet and the consolidation of corporate media on a vast scale, but they were also the days when a lot of Americans seemed to very much want that kind of subjugation.

Culturally, this was a wasteland time.

Pro wrestling, if you can believe it, was kind of an exception.

            Didn’t stay that way, of course.  Even in the early part of the decade  McMahon’s WWF promotion, one of the ‘Big Three’ of the period, was getting heavy into cable and laying the foundation for the domination of sports entertainment and the bulky action-figure grapplers, the mass merchandizing and the rest.  But, this process took a few years.  Around 1981 I was a pubescent who spent a lot of time watching TV, and for me one of the things I looked forward to was ‘Mid-South Wrestling’.  This was a pro wrestling show put out by Bill Watts’ old Mid-South promotion, one of the second tier circuits that existed at the time.  As a kid, I never could quite grasp who it was that put this fabulous production on the air, but I ate it up as did many youths of my age bracket.  At the time superheroes stayed strictly in the comic books, the occasional television series notwithstanding, so if you wanted somebody to look up to the only options out there were the stars of actual sports like the NFL or NBA, or the grapplers. 

For a time, I longed to be one of them, this elite fraternity of burly men who wore loud tights underneath prodigious beer guts (there were muscular wrestlers at the time, like Tony Atlas or Ricky ‘The Dragon’ Steamboat, but these were by and large the exception) and shiny, sequin-covered boots and who, to a man, mostly came off as having at best high school educations.  Some wore creepy-looking bondage masks and hailed from some magical place called ‘Parts Unknown’, which was even cooler.  Being a little over five-and-a-half feet tall on my tallest day, of average physical build and eventually headed off to college I was never going to fulfill this dream, but didn’t know that then.  But that’s the whole point to hero worship, isn’t it?  I mean, especially at a time and place where everything else from the LA hair metal bands to Rambo’s revenge fantasies in Vietnam were effigies so calculated and triumphal, who wouldn’t want to be a genuine blue collar roughneck with big arms, a big mouth and a patented finishing move?  It may be that the action in the ring was staged, with a fixed outcome designed to generate an emotional response out of the dedicated fan base, but guys like Dusty Rhodes and the Junkyard Dog seemed real.  What difference did it make if some of them were washouts from NFL training camps who’d found a new racket?  These guys were like my stevedore uncle, or the Vietnam veteran who stayed on the neighbor’s couch for a few months in the late 1970s.  Just from hearing him talk, you could tell nobody put a silver spoon in Dusty Rhodes’ mouth when he was born.

That’s what made him the American Dream.

            In a lot of ways Rhodes was everything the 80s didn’t stand for, even though he enjoyed some of his greatest success then.  The man was, frankly, kind of rotund, proudly strutting around wrestling rings all across the world with his massive gut, man boobs and stretch marks for all the world to see.  His curly locks were bleached and usually cropped short, sometimes in a post-mod afro thing, sometimes in a proto-mullet.  When he opened his mouth before a match, or during one of the interviews/trash-talk sessions in the booth that were a staple of wrestling programs, Rhodes spoke with almost a speech impediment, as though he’d had a cleft pallet at birth that had been rudely stitched together by his dad in the cab of a beaten-down pick-up truck on the way back from the hospital.  His overall impression was of a guy who’d maybe once been a real asshole (which was his deal in the early days of his career when he partnered up with the legendary Dick ‘Captain Redneck’ Murdoch, another personal favorite from the Mid-South days, as one half of the ‘Texas Outlaws’ tag team) but who at some point had gotten wise to the evils of being what was then known as a ‘rulebreaker’ and decided to fly the straight and narrow for a change.

I think that’s what made him so hugely popular.

Who can’t relate to the fuck-up who makes good, kicks some ass and takes names?

Isn’t that really all of us, deep down?

            I don’t have any particular memories of a match Dusty Rhodes participated in either on Mid-South, where he was only an occasional presence, or the Von Erichs’ brilliant ‘World Championship Wrestling’ show but I do recall one thing about he was fond of doing in those days.  The regional Mid-South promotion didn’t have the best production values and it didn’t have a cable deal.  But, it had one thing going for it, a home-field advantage that Vince McMahon with all his millions never could manufacture with steroids or face paint: Boyd Pierce.  Pierce was the guy in the booth who sat or stood passively to the side with his microphone in hand while somebody like the Super-Destroyer or Ted DiBiase (this being back in his pre-WWF, clean-shaven, mostly good-guy formative period) would yell at whomever it was they had a blood feud with at the time, promising retribution in the form of a good ass-kicking the next time the pair would square off in the ring.  And here was this little old guy who was very quiet, like the world’s oldest water boy for a football team from the post-WWII era, back when they didn’t bother with wussy stuff like face masks.  Greying, pot-bellied, and anodyne, Boyd Pierce made his mark in my 10-year old’s mind with his loud (and I do mean loud), rainbow-hued selection of outdated polyester suits and his utter unflappable mien regardless of who was spitting or strutting around in his general personal space.  You got the impression that the late Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi (then in America considered a big-time 80s-era supervillain world leader, the Kim Jong Un of his day) could’ve shown up in full dress uniform with a pistol with a big silencer on the barrel to threaten him with on camera, and Pierce wouldn’t have blinked an eye.  Surrounded by roughnecks and literal giants and men who allegedly kept ‘foreign objects’ in their boots or armbands, nothing fazed this man.  To this day, there are few figures in my memory of American popular history that I hold in more esteem than Boyd Pierce; like the wrestlers he helped to promote, he was in his own strange way a breed apart.  Pierce was the flavor of that blue-collar grappling racket, unrehearsed and utterly sincere.

            So, to me, one of the great ongoing routines in the Mid-South booth, and I’m sure he repeated it in just about every other grappling precinct where he picked up a check to perform, was when Dusty Rhodes, flanked by straight-man Boyd Pierce in a raspberry hounds-toothed leisure ensemble with matching, impossibly wide tie, would recite one of his little poems to let the audience know how much of a bad-ass he was.  Rhodes would get up there, sometimes shirtless with a wrestling title belt, shiny and tacky and ridiculously huge, slung underneath his belly and sometimes in a denim shirt and jeans with a baseball cap cocked off to the side, and borrow the words of the late Jim Croce’s ‘You Don’t Mess Around with Jim’ to make this, one of his most definitive statements:

RHODES:  ‘Yeah, thass’ right Ric Flair (or the Grappler, or ‘Bruiser’ Brody or whomever the feud was with at the time), you think you the cock o’ the walk walkin’ aroun’ Mid-South Wrestling right now! But, I got somethin’ to tell you, Brothah!

‘You doan’ tug on Supahman’s Cape!’
‘You doan’ spit in the Wind!’
‘You doan’ pull that mask off dat ol’ Lone Ranguh,
and you doan’ mess aroun’ wit’ da Amekun’ Dreem, Dusty Rhodes!

            Those were magical words to me, when I was in my early teens.  The fact that the man could pull off such a performance looking like he’d just gotten back from mowing his lawn, sweaty and somewhat pissed and with the speech impediment to boot, is part of what made it so believable.  This was a guy I could relate to, not like President Reagan or the cast of ‘Family Ties’.  Dusty Rhodes was proud of being a plumber’s son, proud of taking a gig that most would’ve regarded as beneath them, as a joke, and turning it into a cottage industry.  And, maybe the best thing about Dusty Rhodes was that it never seemed to be just about the star.  Look around the internet since his passing and you’ll find one testimony after another and you’ll see it: the tremendous respect from the peers, the people who came after the American Dream and others like him paved their way to success, who recognize his generosity and fearless example.  Pro wrestling has come a long way as a commercially viable form of sports entertainment, and perhaps in its own way helped to provide a fertile ground for things like the public acceptance of Ultimate Fighting, but as an art form and as a place for us regular folks to find heroes to believe in, to live through, I don’t think it was ever better served than it was in the days of the smaller promotions and the fat guys screaming at each other on small sound stages and dilapidated sporting rings in places like Shreveport or Tulsa.

            Dusty Rhodes was a product of that world, a distant place that was cruel and brutal in some ways, but maybe more honest and understandable in others. He was a real American hero up from the bottom, the guys who built the railroads, worked in the coal mines or fixed your faucet. And, for a time, he was one of the most recognizable figures in the business, rotund and love handles and frosted hair in tow.

He was the American Dream.

I miss him already.