May the Fourth!

Today is the unofficial nerd holiday known as Star Wars Day, owing to the unfortunate pun formed by a certain pronunciation of the date (“May the Fourth be with you!” Get it? Yeah, I know… it makes me groan as well.) Now, it’s not as if people need an excuse to chatter about Star Wars on social media any more than they already do on any other day of the year, but I must confess that I rather enjoy the whole silly thing. I’ve seen a lot of memes, artwork, and jokes today that have made me smile…  and with that swaggering blowhard Donald Trump all but claiming the Iron Throne last night, a few smiles have been absolutely vital to my psychological well-being.

Of all the Star Wars-related stuff I’ve seen today, my favorite piece has been a promo video produced by the British TV network Sky Movies to advertise their marathon of the first six SW movies (or, as I think they ought to be called, the Lucasian Sextet).  This one is just plain neato:

And then there’s the news that Greedo himself — or at least the actor who was inside the green-snouted costume, Paul Blake — has weighed in on the undying question of “Who shot first?” In an interview with the New York Daily News, Blake says the scene he remembers acting all those years ago ended with the words, “Han shoots the alien.” Period. In other words, not only did Greedo not shoot first, he didn’t shoot at all. Blake goes on: “It would be lovely to see them go back to the original version, I much preferred it, I must say.”

Amen, sir. There are a lot of, ahem, unofficial options these days for seeing the pre-1997 editions of the original trilogy, but I still hold out hope there will one day be a sanctioned, respectful, official BluRay release. I’d even buy a box set of all the variations that now exist, so long as the pre-97s are given a decent presentation. Hey, we all need our obsessions, right?

In the meantime, I think I’m going to watch that Sky Movies ad again. I really adore that…

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A Final Gift from David Bowie

Not to sound utterly narcissistic or anything, but I’ve found my reaction to the deaths of musical icons Prince and David Bowie… interesting. Neither man’s work was a favorite of mine while they were alive, but in death, I’ve somehow gained a much deeper appreciation for them as artists.

Consider Bowie’s final album, Blackstar. It’s well-understood at this point that the album was his exploration of his own mortality, and the eerie, melancholy song and video “Lazarus” his farewell to the world. But today there’s news going around that he may have left us one final gift from beyond:

…a curious (or irresponsible) Imgur user recently discovered yet another secret feature of the Blackstar gatefold. Expose the LP cover to sunlight (without the record inside, of course), and the matte black background within the star outline transforms into a starry night sky. The Reddit thread about this phenomenon goes into more detail about how long it takes—perhaps anywhere from one to three hours—and notes the cosmos appear only under direct sunlight. (In other words, it’s not a permanent thing.)

Here’s what it looks like:

View post on imgur.com

The star pattern is evidently artwork from a vinyl booklet found inside the gatefold, so it might be just an accident of chemistry resulting from exposure to light, and nothing that anyone, least of all Bowie himself, planned. But somehow — and maybe this is just my romantic nature talking — I don’t think so. I like to think that somewhere, a very long way from here in no particular direction, a thin, handsome man just smiled because somebody finally found his message…

Bowie, man… you truly did rock.

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Friday Evening Videos: “Kyrie”

I had been thinking I’d do something related to Prince for this week’s Friday video — since his untimely death, a lot of interesting clips have been surfacing of him performing with other artists, or in unexpected venues — but this morning I had an inspiration to go with something a little different.

I was driving to the train station, headed directly toward the Wasatch Mountains that brace up the east side of the Salt Lake Valley like a fortress wall. The tattered remnants of last night’s rain clouds were snagged on the jagged peaks and flowing through the canyons and contours of the mountains like a thick, steel-gray liquid, and as I grew nearer to this ominous, beautiful sight, a song lyric leaped into my mind: “Kyrie eleison down the road that I must travel…”

Don’t look so surprised. For a time in the mid ’80s, there was a middle space between the electric-guitar-based rock that I loved and the synth-based New Wave stuff that I loathed, and the pop band Mr. Mister fell squarely into that sweet spot. “Kyrie” was the second of two number-one hits that emerged from the band’s sophomore album, Welcome to the Real World (the first being the more ballad-like “Broken Wings”). While the refrain was a mystery to me for years — I eventually learned that Kyrie eleison is Greek for “Lord, have mercy,” a phrase found in many Christian liturgies — I always liked the throbbing synthesizer rhythm that underpins the song (yes, there are synth songs I like!) and the overall uplifting tone of the lyrics, which manage to be wistful and optimistic at the same time. And even though I’ve never been a religious person, who hasn’t hoped for a bit of grace as we travel roads both metaphorical and literal?

“Kyrie” was released late in the year 1985 and eventually peaked in March 1986, occupying the Billboard Hot 100‘s top spot for two weeks. That was my junior year of high school. I had my driver’s license by then, and was starting to venture out on my own, usually in a brown 1970 Thunderbird that was probably three times the size of the car I drive today. I remember more than once putting my window down and singing along to this song with the wind in my hair.

The video isn’t especially memorable, I’m afraid, falling squarely into the cliche’d “shots of the band performing in a vast, darkened space juxtaposed with candid backstage shenanigans” category. But the song is good — interestingly, for a synth-based pop song from that era, it doesn’t sound especially dated to me — and the band was reasonably nice to look at. I still trend to dress more or less in the same style as the lead singer, Richard Page, for whatever that’s worth:

Sadly, Mr. Mister didn’t find much success after “Kyrie.” Their third album, Go On…, crashed and burned, despite generally good reviews, and the band broke up in 1990. A fourth album, which had been mostly completed at the time of the breakup, disappeared into the studio vaults for 20 years and was finally released in 2010.

And on that note, have a fine weekend everyone!

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Tributes to His Purpleness

Not surprisingly, the Internet has been awash in comments about the late musician Prince over the past several days. If you’re at all active on social media, you will have seen a lot of them, everything ranging from humorous memes that play off the recent rash of celebrity deaths (“Has anybody checked on Ozzy lately?” and “Every time a musician dies, Keith Richards receives the Quickening“) to heartfelt reminiscences, to just-plain-weird shit. (Evidently, there’s a conspiracy theory taking root that claims Prince faked his own death… no doubt so he could spend more time hanging out in truck stops with MJ, Elvis, and Eddie Wilson, or something. Ooooookay.) I’d like to single out three tributes that I thought were particularly classy.

First up is Bob Staake’s cover art for this week’s issue of The New Yorker magazine, which I found striking in its wordless simplicity:

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Then there’s the image that Chevrolet shared on Facebook and Twitter; it also ran as a full-page ad in six major newspapers. Personally, I think this is the best that anyone has done, drawing on Prince’s own words (the lyrics to “Little Red Corvette,” if you don’t get it) and a sexy image of a 1963 Stingray to say everything that really needs to be said on an occasion like this. Notice that this isn’t a promotional ad for the brand. Chevy isn’t cashing in on the man’s passing by pushing a commercial message to buy cars. They’re just acknowledging the connection that existed between an iconic song and their iconic flagship sportscar. It’s understated, tasteful, and poignant, and when I first saw it, it honestly brought a tear to my eye. I really love this:

prince_chevrolet-tribute

And finally, a tribute of a different sort, a video clip from Bruce Springsteen’s April 23rd performance at Brooklyn’s Barclays Center, which he opened with a rendition of “Purple Rain.” I’ve always been a casual fan of Bruce’s music, but his in-concert responses to the passing of David Bowie, Glenn Frey, and now Prince has made me a big fan of Springsteen as a human being, too.

One last thought: I think it really speaks to Prince’s talent as a writer that such a well-known, signature song that is so strongly identified with a particular performer — Prince himself — is flexible enough to be performed by a man with such a different musical style and voice, and still work beautifully. A couple days ago, I took one of those silly Facebook quizzes that promised to reveal “Which Prince song was written for you.” My result was “Purple Rain.” I can live with that. For all sorts of reasons.

Incidentally, if you like this rendition of the song, you can download a free MP3 copy of it from Bruce’s official website here. That’s why they call him The Boss…

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In Memoriam: Prince

prince_1984

The first girl I ever seriously kissed was a major Prince fan. I didn’t see the appeal.

The appeal of Prince, I mean. The kiss was awesome. I can still remember it with almost shocking vividness. But Prince… really?

Sure, “Let’s Go Crazy” was as infectious a tune as any I’d ever heard. But this girl’s interest in him wasn’t confined to his musical ability, if you get my meaning. She wanted him bad, and she wasn’t shy about telling me either, and that made me kinda crazy. I just didn’t get it. Even on TV, where everybody looks taller, he was visibly tiny — scrawny even — and with all the lace and the purple velvet suits and the high-heeled boots and such, he looked… well, he didn’t look much like me, you know? I was sixteen years old and insecure as hell, desperate to unravel the mysteries of sex and masculinity and how exactly to get girls to like me. So naturally anyone who seemed to be making a bigger impression on them than I was, someone who had an entirely different style than my own denim-and-long-hair thing, was a tremendous threat to my ego. Even if that someone was an completely unattainable fantasy figure. I didn’t like Prince back in the day because, quite simply, I was jealous of the foppish little squirt. It was a classic case of “What’s he got that I haven’t got?!”

Everyone reading this has no doubt heard by now that Prince, born Prince Rogers Nelson, died yesterday morning at the age of 57. Preliminary reports said the cause was complications from the flu, but later I started seeing more troubling rumors about an overdose. There’s going to be an autopsy, of course. But whatever happened to him, his death — like Michael Jackson’s a few years ago — triggered a surprising stew of emotions in me, not only because his passing at a relatively young age was so unexpected, but because I hadn’t realized how much of a touchstone he and his music had become for me until he was taken away from us. I may not have liked him when I was sixteen (although truthfully, I think I probably did like him more than I was willing to admit, just as I secretly liked MJ too), but sixteen was a long time ago. Somewhere along the way, I grew up, and Prince won me over.

Maybe it was the funky beats he contributed to several key scenes in the 1989 Batman movie. (Sorry, Heath Ledger fans, Nicholson is my Joker.) Maybe it was the adorable vision of Julia Roberts singing “Kiss” to herself in a bathtub in Pretty Woman. Or the bright springtime mornings when I’ve heard “Raspberry Beret” on the radio and found myself feeling happy for no good reason. It could have been the way “1999” took on a whole new relevance for Generation X as the actual turn of the millennium approached. Or the times Anne and I have sung along to “Little Red Corvette” at the top of our lungs while driving with the top down.

But I think what really, finally brought me around on the Purple One was his 2004 performance at his Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, when he played George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” with Tom Petty, Jeff Lynne, Steve Winwood, and George’s son Dhani. Prince’s guitar solo during that performance was a thing of beauty, a display of virtuoso skill by an artist at the top of his game, who has nothing left to prove and simply plays for the sake of playing. You can’t help but admire someone who can make it look so effortless, and who very obviously derived so much joy from doing it. The man was having fun playing that song, on that stage, with those other performers. And that’s something about this performance that’s really striking too: as someone pointed out yesterday in a Facebook discussion I read, Prince wasn’t grandstanding or overshadowing the others. As flashy as his playing was, it was in support of the song and of the band. And even the moment when we lets himself fall backwards into the hands of an assistant who pushes him back upright… as ridiculous as that moment was, it was also charming. It was cool. Just look at the grin Dhani Harrison flashes at that moment; he gets it. He knows that that little bit of theater was pure rock and roll. It was James Brown’s business with the cape, Chuck Berry’s duckwalk, Elvis’ karate poses.

Other people have a deeper knowledge of Prince’s catalog than myself — I’m pretty much limited to an entry-level “greatest hits” discussion — and those folks are no doubt better qualified to write about the technicalities of what, exactly, he did as a musician, and why it was significant. But it’s clear even to me that Prince — like Bowie or Michael Jackson, or Tom Jones or Willie Nelson or Ray Charles or any of the other performers who become cultural institutions — transcended any one genre and was simply himself. He wasn’t a rock star, he was just a star… one that burned out while it still had light to give.

I’ve been thinking about that a lot since the news broke yesterday morning, about how young 57 really is, how much time he might have had left, how many things he might’ve been able to do with that time. And I’ve been thinking a lot about that girl I knew who loved him so much. We only went out a couple times. Remember, I was sixteen and I was stupid. Maybe she could’ve loved me if I’d had more confidence; maybe not. Who knows, and after 30 years, it doesn’t matter anyhow. But I still remember that first kiss in the glare of a porch light. And the way the baby’s-breath she wore the night of the big school dance seemed to glow white against her dark hair.  And I remember dancing with her on her back lawn one chilly evening, dancing slow and close to “Purple Rain.”

If for no other reason, I mourn the death of Prince Rogers Nelson because he gave me that moment.

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Friday Evening Videos: “If We Make It Through December”

[Ed. note: I should have had this one up last Friday, for reasons that ought to be obvious, but it was one of those days — all of my Fridays have been those days recently, which really bums me out. Because Friday is a day to think about music videos, not 25-page white papers that leave you too mentally drained to bang out even a brief blog entry. Anyhow… ]

We’re mostly into rock music around this place — you may have noticed — but I confess to having a soft spot for a certain flavor of country music, too, primarily the stuff that was popular when I was a kid in the 1970s and early ’80s. That’s not as incongruous as it might sound, though. There was a lot of cross-pollination between the genres back then, and the line between country, pop, and rock was often pretty blurry, especially to an unsophisticated child who grew up listening to whatever Mom was playing in her pickup while she drove me around town as she ran her errands.

You’ve no doubt heard that one of the giants of that era, Merle Haggard, died a week ago Wednesday, on his 79th birthday. Haggard was practically the Aristotelian ideal of what we think a country musician is supposed to be: a populist poet who drew on his own difficult history — child of Dust Bowl refugees, incarcerated in San Quentin, married five times, the obligatory struggles with substance abuse — to evoke the lives and losses of hard-working, salt-of-the-earth types. In a career that spanned half a century, he scored a mind-boggling 38 number-one hits and continued to record and tour up until mere weeks before his death. (He played one of the Nevada/Utah border casinos only a couple months ago; I wish now I’d made the drive out there to see him.)

His signature hit “Okie from Muskogee,” from 1969, is either an ode to or a spoof of a particular set of redneck attitudes, and I frankly despise that one no matter which he intended it to be. More often, though, I found relatable authenticity in his lyrics and his natural vocal stylings, which were so different from the phony twang that nearly everybody in the genre uses these days. Unlike all the modern-day Garth Brooks wanna-bes, Haggard didn’t need to demonstrate his country bona fides with any affectations; he just told stories of quietly brave people who’ve drawn bad hands but keep on striving. Case in point, this week’s video selection and my favorite Merle Haggard song, “If We Make It Through December.”

Initially released in October 1973, the song is frequently classified as a Christmas tune because of its references to the holiday season, and the fact that it came from a Christmas album. But in fact, it’s more a song about economic hardship and loneliness, and also about resilience and hope for a better future, as expressed in the lines about summertime and California. The song spent four weeks at the top of the Billboard Hot Country Singles chart, from December ’73 through January 1974, and it also crossed over to reach number 28 on the Billboard Hot 100. Whenever I hear it, I think of the farm town I knew as a boy, and the blue-collar men and women I saw every day, the ones who raised alfalfa and worked at the nearby Bingham Canyon copper mine, and who lingered over coffee and cigarettes at Orton’s Cafe and went boating or horseback-riding on the weekends. This song sounds like home to me, a form of home I haven’t known in decades.

The video clip I found is a 1976 performance on The Donny & Marie Show, which is a whole other gift basket of nostalgia:

 

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Nostalgia’s a Bitch, Man, But She’s My Bitch

star-wars_anh_luke-on-tatooineSo, do you suppose that during all those years Luke Skywalker evidently spends standing on a rock in the ocean on Planet Ireland, brooding about how everything went to hell for him after his twenties, he ever got misty-eyed about the good old days of zooming around the desert in his landspeeder and hanging with Fixer and the gang at Toshi Station?

Just something that occurred to me this morning as I was remembering the little farm town I grew up in and the faceless suburb it’s become…

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“You Just Pity Him and Get on with Your Life.”

I wasn’t inclined to see Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (or as I like to call it, The Super-Bat Showdown Show) from the very beginning. For one thing, the movie’s premise was obviously cribbed, at least in part, from The Dark Knight Returns, the hugely influential 1986 graphic novel by Frank Miller that I’ve never especially cared for. Yes, I know, I know… that’s heresy to the comic-book faithful. But I never claimed to be a full-fledged member of that particular cult. More of a dilettante hovering around the fringes and talking a good game. As for the color-desaturated visual style and the bleak, humorless, self-important tone that has come to define Warner Brothers’ film versions of DC Comics’ flagship characters in the post-Christopher Nolan era… well, let’s just say that’s not to my taste either. Contrast those dour slogs to the Marvel movies, whose characters also wrestle with questions of responsibility, power, and personal demons but somehow still manage to spare a moment or two to actually enjoy being superheroes. I mean, come on… part of the appeal of the entire superhero genre is wish-fulfillment. If you could fly or lift cars over your head or were effectively immortal, don’t you think there would be times, at least once in a while, when you’d just break out in an enormous grin because of the sheer awesomeness of what you’re capable of doing? And then there’s the whole matter of bright colors being more pleasing to the eye…

Still… I kind of had it in the back of my mind that I’d probably catch The Super-Bat Show eventually, maybe a few years from now when I stumble across it on television some Saturday afternoon. But after sampling the seemingly endless stream of bad reviews and even worse word-of-mouth over the past couple weeks, I’ve decided to not only not rush out to see this movie, but to actively avoid it. I suspect I’m receiving more entertainment from the bad reviews and rants I’ve been reading than the film itself could ever provide me

However, in all that tremendous, rushing torrent of boiling-white snark, disappointment, anger, and occasional cogent analysis of where, exactly, director Zack Snyder went wrong, there was one comment, one metaphor, that has really stood out for me, one that really encapsulates my sense of malaise over the whole Warner/DC thing. It comes from the writer Jayme Lynn Blaschke:

Once all is said and done, I can’t even bring myself to despise Batman v. Superman the way I do Man of Steel. The latter has an arrogant contempt for the source material that is simply wrong. This one… Batman v Superman is a hapless kid who sits in the back of the class and eats paste all day. You can’t hate that. You just pity him and get on with your life.

Like the fanboys writing into the old letter-to-the-editors column used to say, “Make mine Marvel!”

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“I Must Leave This Planet or Lose My Mind”

In lieu of the usual music-type video, I thought I’d offer a different sort of distraction for this Friday evening…

I’ve seen a lot of Star Wars parody videos over the years. I mean, a lot. There are nearly as many of those silly things out there on the InterWebs as there are cat videos. But every once in a while, one comes along that is truly sublime in its creativity, its unique take on the source material, and yes, its side-splitting, coffee-spewing, tear-inducing hilariousness. My buddy Robert sent me one such gem today, which re-imagines several key scenes from The Empire Strikes Back as a Spanish-language telenovela, and the results are… well, just take a look:

Ah, man. I’ve watched this half a dozen times this afternoon, and I’m still laughing. But you know… seeing Our Heroes as, ahem, young and horny only highlights how deeply unhappy I am with what becomes of them in The Force Awakens. One of these weekends, I’ve got to clear my calendar and write up exactly what I thought of that movie…

But it probably won’t be this weekend. I may post some more in the next 48 hours, but I’ve got other subjects in the chute ahead of my TFA review. In the meantime, have a good one, kids. Hope you have some nice spring weather to enjoy.

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The Dark Came Down on All Hallow’s Eve…

From A Breath of Snow and Ashes, the sixth volume in Diana Gabaldon’s Outlander series:

The dark came down on All Hallows’ Eve. We went to sleep to the sound of howling wind and pelting rain, and woke on the Feast of All Saints to whiteness and large soft flakes falling down in absolute stillness. There is no more perfect stillness than the solitude in the heart of a snow storm.

 

This is the thing time, when the beloved dead draw near. The world turns inward, and the chilling air grows thick with dreams and mysterry. The sky goes from a sharp clear cold where a million stars burn bright and close, to the gray-pink cloud that enfolds the earth with the promise of snow.

 

I took one of Bree’s matches from its box and lit it, thrilling to the tiny leap of instant flame, and bent to put it to the kindling. Snow was falling, and winter had come; the season of fire. Candles and hearth fire, that lovely, leaping paradox, that destruction contained but never tamed, held at a safe distance to warm and enchant, but always, still, with that small sense of danger.

 

The smell of roasting pumpkins was thick and sweet in the air. Having ruled the night with fire, the jack-o’-lanterns went now to a more peaceful fate as pies and compost, to join the gentle rest of the earth before renewal. I had turned the earth in my garden the day before, planting the winter seeds to sleep and swell, to dream their buried birth.

 

Now is the time when we reenter the womb of the world, dreaming the dreams of snow and silence. Waking to the shock of frozen lakes under waning moonlight and the cold sun burning low and blue in the branches of the ice-cased trees, returning from our brief and necessary labors to food and story, to the warmth of firelight in the dark.

 

Around a fire, in the dark, all truths can be told, and heard, in safety.

 

I pulled on my woolen stockings, thick petticoats, my warmest shawl, and went down to poke up the kitchen fire. I stood watching wisps of steam rise from the fragrant cauldron, and felt myself turn inward. The world could go away, and we would heal.

 

No point here, nothing much to say, just a piece of writing that I found especially lovely and evocative. And enviable…

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