I’ve built quite a persona for myself over the years as a musical curmudgeon: defender all things ’80s, grunge heretic, “Mr. Classic Rock.” If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time, you know the drill. But while I can’t deny that I found less and less of the new music coming out during the 1990s to my liking, it is untrue that I didn’t like any of it. There were songs in that era that managed to catch my fancy.
Two of those were early hits by an Irish band called The Cranberries, although I honestly couldn’t have told you who performed them prior to this week. I know the band’s name now, of course, because of the sad, untimely death on Monday of their lead singer Dolores O’Riordan. As of this writing, there still hasn’t been any official cause of death released to the public. All we really know is that she died in a London hotel room at the age of 46.
It’s funny… I haven’t thought about either “Linger” or “Dreams” in years, but I’ve had both of them on constant repeat all week. They both summon up a kind of sense memory of my young adulthood… no specific associations, but rather just the way it felt to be in my early twenties in the early ’90s. “Linger” was the bigger hit, but somehow it’s “Dreams” that resonates the most strongly for me. The song was the band’s first single, originally released to little attention in 1992, only to become a top-15 hit in 1994 after “Linger” cleared the way. Listening to it today, I can recall how my body felt before all the hinges started to squeak, and in O’Riordan’s clear, girlish voice I hear all the yearning and hope and certainty that used to live in my own heart. Maybe that’s why the death of a woman whose face and name I didn’t know has shaken me so hard… well, that and her age, just two years younger than myself. The same age as my lovely Anne. And the fact that, as far as the public knows she simply dropped dead. She was on the eve of recording new music, a mother of three, reportedly feeling good about her life and with a lot.of living yet to go… and then she’s gone.
I’ve reached the age where you just never know. And I am as haunted by that as I’ve ever been by hazy nostalgia. Coming from me, that’s saying something.
There’s a race of men that don’t fit in,
A race that can’t stay still;
So they break the hearts of kith and kin,
And they roam the world at will.
They range the field and they rove the flood,
And they climb the mountain’s crest;
Theirs is the curse of the gypsy blood,
And they don’t know how to rest.
If they just went straight they might go far;
They are strong and brave and true;
But they’re always tired of the things that are,
And they want the strange and new.
They say: “Could I find my proper groove,
What a deep mark I would make!”
So they chop and change, and each fresh move
Is only a fresh mistake.
And each forgets, as he strips and runs
With a brilliant, fitful pace,
It’s the steady, quiet, plodding ones
Who win in the lifelong race.
And each forgets that his youth has fled,
Forgets that his prime is past,
Till he stands one day, with a hope that’s dead,
In the glare of the truth at last.
He has failed, he has failed; he has missed his chance;
He has just done things by half.
Life’s been a jolly good joke on him,
And now is the time to laugh.
Ha, ha! He is one of the Legion Lost;
He was never meant to win;
He’s a rolling stone, and it’s bred in the bone;
He’s a man who won’t fit in.
— Robert W. Service, The Spell of the Yukon, and Other Verses (1911)
Here’s something I’ve been needing to hear recently:
To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty, but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness.
What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction.
And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.
— Howard Zinn, You Can’t Be Neutral on a Moving Train: A Personal History of Our Times
I was inspired to track this down after seeing the 1981 film adaptation last year. I’d heard the film left out a lot of material and was generally inferior. While it’s true that the movie does pare down the story quite a bit, as well as substantially changing the nature of the monster, I’m undecided as to whether I’d call it inferior or not, because the book really didn’t do much for me.
Which isn’t to say I didn’t like the book. I did. But I didn’t love the book. I thought it had a really interesting idea at its core, namely that the vampires, werewolves, and ghosts that have been talked about throughout human history are all in fact the same kind of creature, a very long-lived creature that preys on humanity and genuinely enjoys screwing with its prey. There were a few moments of genuine dread. And I thought the story was interesting on a metatextual level, as it was a ghost story in which many people tell ghost stories, and those stories both influence and explain the events the characters experience. But I’m sorry to say none of the characters, out of an entire townful of characters, ever really came alive for me. I’m afraid Stephen King has the corner on that market. And the author’s prose style kept me at arm’s length for reasons I haven’t quite been able to work out.
Bottom line, I respected it intellectually, but I just didn’t have much of an emotional response to it. A disappointment, but not a complete misfire.
Here’s a little something for the season, from the man whose name is synonymous with Halloween — Halloween the movie, that is — film writer and director John Carpenter.
Carpenter is essentially retired from movie-making these days, but he’s been keeping himself plenty busy with musical pursuits. Working with his son Cody (whose mother is the actress Adrienne Barbeau) and godson Daniel Davies, he’s recorded two albums in recent years, Lost Themes and Lost Themes II, both of which sound like the throbbing synthesizer soundtracks he used to create for his films. (That’s a good thing, in my book.) He’s even done a few live performances, like a bona fide rock star. (I’ve not been fortunate enough to see him… yet. But I’m hopeful.)
Now, however, he’s stepped back behind the camera and behind the wheel of a familiar old friend to promote his latest release, Anthology: Movie Themes 1974-1998. For an old-school Carpenter fan like myself, the result is pretty close to sublime:
I don’t know about you, but the hair on my arms rises when those tires start to squeal…
Anthology, a collection of Carpenter’s iconic movie music re-recorded using modern equipment and updated arrangements, came out last month and is available in all the usual formats, from all the usual venues.
And remember, kids, when you’re out trick-or-treating tonight… if a strange old man driving a red ’57 Plymouth rolls up and offers you a ride… don’t be scared. It’s only Halloween…
Back in the heady days of my career as a technical writer — which, as it happened, more or less coincided with the heady days of the Internet going mainstream and the dot-com boom — we used to talk a lot about “content is king,” i.e., the most important thing. Of course, people said a lot of things back then that later got re-evaluated.
“Content isn’t king, conversation is king. Content is only something to talk about.”
Anne and I went to a party last night at which the guests were asked to brainstorm “a teaser for a gruesome Halloween episode of a popular TV show” as part of a game. (Actually, the results would more accurately be called loglines, but hey, why quibble?) Winners were chosen for funniest, goriest, and overall best ideas. I thought it was a fun little exercise, and I’m rather proud of what we came up with, so naturally I must share:
Tonight, on a spooooky episode of Hogan’s Heroes: One by one, the men of Stalag 13 are growing sick and dying. Colonel Klink has gone mad with religious fervor. General Burkhalter has gone to the Russian Front where it’s safe. And Hogan realizes that no one sees Schultz during the daytime any more…
And the second one:
In this very special episode of The Andy Griffith Show, the dead are walking the streets of Mayberry. Andy, Opie, and Barney have barricaded themselves in the courthouse. As Andy begins to rave delusionally after being bitten by the zombie Floyd, Barney ponders the best use for his one bullet…
Why yes, we do watch a lot of MeTV, why do you ask?
I never thought I’d be quoting John McCain, of all people, but when you’re right, you’re right:
“To fear the world we have organized and led for three-quarters of a century, to abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership and our duty to remain the last best hope of earth for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history,
“We live in a land made of ideals, not blood and soil. We have done great good in the world. That leadership has had its costs, but we have become incomparably powerful and wealthy as we did.
“We have a moral obligation to continue in our just cause, and we would bring more than shame on ourselves if we don’t. We will not thrive in a world where our leadership and ideals are absent. We wouldn’t deserve to.”
Just between you and me, the sudden, shocking death of Tom Petty earlier this week sent me into a deep funk.
I’m sure it didn’t help that I was already upset about the bloodbath in Las Vegas the night before the news about Petty broke. But even so, seeing the initial report that he’d been found in full cardiac arrest a mere week after the triumphant finish of what he’d been saying would be his final tour… it hit me like a piledriver to the solar plexus and I’m still trying to find my breath.
What surprises me about my reaction is that I’ve only ever thought of myself as a casual, “greatest-hits” level fan. Hell, for a long time, I didn’t even have a clear idea of who Tom Petty was, other than the skinny blond dude in that really messed-up “Alice in Wonderland”-themed MTV video. But then came The Traveling Wilburys, Vol. 1, the collaborative project he did with Roy Orbison, George Harrison, Bob Dylan, and Jeff Lynne. I adored the Wilburys. Then came Full Moon Fever, his first solo album without his usual band, the Heartbreakers, and I adored that, too. And then I heard “American Girl” in the film The Silence of the Lambs, of all places, and decided I needed to check out this guy’s back catalog, whereupon I realized that I really did know quite a lot of Tom Petty’s work after all, and I liked what I’d heard. Like Springsteen and Mellencamp, he had a knack for capturing a particular flavor of everyday American life that I strongly related to. For whatever reason, though, I’ve just never explored his oeuvre beyond the radio hits. Hence, my feeling of being a casual fan at best.
Nevertheless, there are two Tom Petty songs that are very important to me, both of which just happened to come along right when I most needed to hear them, and I think it’s because of the personal meaning attached to those two songs that I’m feeling his death so keenly.
The first was “Free Fallin’,” the third single from Full Moon Fever and one of Tom’s biggest hits. It was released in the fall of 1989 and peaked on the charts in January of ’90. As fate would have it, I was experiencing my first big heartbreak during that period, and while there were many songs that spoke to me around that time, it’s “Free Fallin'” that I remember playing over and over. Its mood, if not its actual lyrics, reflected my emotional state almost perfectly: a melancholy stew of loss, regret, guilt, and most of all, the gnawing, inescapable truth that there wasn’t a damn thing I could have done to prevent any of it. You might think that listening to a song that reminded me of all that would be masochistic under the circumstances, and I suppose it was, to a degree. But weirdly, it also brought me some comfort to know that I wasn’t the only person who’d ever experienced these feelings. Without being too dramatic about it, I credit this song with keeping me sane during that time.
A year and a half later, I was still trying to pick up the emotional pieces — hey, what can I say, I’ve always been slow to get over stuff — when Tom Petty got back together with the Heartbreakers for the album Into the Great Wide Open. The first single from that one was “Learning to Fly.” And again, somehow, improbably if not impossibly, this tune by a guy 20 years my senior managed to capture exactly what I was going through. I hear in it the weary but hopeful voice of someone who’s been in a tailspin but is now beginning to pull out of it and face the world again, just like I was in the summer of 1991. I still like “Free Fallin’,” but it no longer resonates with me so much. “Learning to Fly” does, because that’s how I still feel at any given time. Like a battered survivor who’s still trying to sort things out. I think maybe I feel that way more now at the age of 48 than I ever have. And so of course that’s the one I must post this week, in honor of a fallen troubadour who meant a lot more to me than I ever realized while he was still here.
I was going to post the official video, but then I spotted this clip, recorded at a concert 12 years ago. It’s the perfect farewell, in so many ways. The slower, more meditative pacing, the audience calling back to him in one of those moments of transcendence you sometimes experience at concerts with your long-time heroes… and yes, that is my beloved rock goddess Stevie Nicks singing backup. She and Petty were friends and occasional collaborators for 40 years. She’s even said she almost joined the Heartbreakers when Fleetwood Mac started going south; instead, she forged a solo career with Tom frequently lending his talents on songs like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around.” I can only imagine what she’s been going through this week… and thinking of it makes me all the more sad.
One final thought: Tom Petty was one of the last remaining names on my wishlist of artists I’d like to see in concert. I never got the chance, and I’m going to regret that for a long time. Even worse, though, Tom’s passing is a reminder that my rock-and-roll imaginary friends are getting old. Realistically they’re not going to be out there on the road for very much longer, and then some time after that, they’re not going to be out there at all. And once they’ve all gone… how old will I feel myself? What happens when you outlive the heroes of your youth?
Here’s an addendum to my previous post: It’s the introductory preview that aired just before “Encounter at Farpoint,” the two-hour premiere episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. Or, as the announcer dude says it, “Starrrrrrrr Trek!”
See what I mean about the ads making this show look action-packed? Let’s just say this impression was… not entirely accurate. The ratio of long-winded speechifying to fisticuffs and/or phaser fire was pretty broad in “Farpoint.” But it’s just as well, since TNG never did do action very well, in my opinion. I don’t know if the cast or directors weren’t comfortable doing action, or if the show’s tone of benign enlightenment simply wasn’t compatible with it, but TNG was always far better in moments of quiet drama than the sorts of shenanigans that Kirk and company often engaged in.
Still… it’s fun to see this little clip again. I think it conveys some of the excitement that swirled around the premiere, which is so very different from the blase’ or outright hostile attitudes with which the new Star Trek: Discovery is being met…