Friday Evening Videos: “Rhinestone Cowboy”

When Glen Campbell died earlier this week, I wrote on Facebook that there was a lot more to his career than just “Rhinestone Cowboy,” and indeed that’s true. He wore a lot of hats during the course of his 50-year career in the entertainment industry: He was a session musician on a mind-boggling number of recordings during the ’60s; he filled in for Brian Wilson on tour when the leader of the Beach Boys had a nervous breakdown; as a solo artist, he recorded and released some 67 albums; he hosted four seasons of a television variety show that bore his name; and he even tried his hand at acting, appearing alongside no less a star than John Wayne in the original True Grit. In spite of all those achievements, though, the vast majority of the obituaries and retrospectives I saw this week somehow managed to reference “Rhinestone” in their headlines. But you know what? As legacies go, that song is a pretty damn good one.

Released in 1975 as a standalone single (as opposed to a track from an album), Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” was a cover of a song written and recorded a year earlier by a guy named Larry Weiss. Weiss’ recording didn’t make much of an splash, but Campbell’s certainly did, rising to the number-one spot on both the country and pop charts, and ending the year as Billboard‘s number-two single of ’75. It also scored highly on a number of international charts and, with its laid-back-but-not-too-twangy sound, it helped usher in a new sub-genre of country/pop crossover music that would peak in the early ’80s with hitmakers like Alabama, Juice Newton, Eddie Rabbitt, and Kenny Rogers. “Rhinestone” is also one of a handful of songs — including Mac Davis’ “Baby Don’t Get Hooked on Me,” Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown,” and Elvis Presley’s “Kentucky Rain” — that are capable of instantly catapulting me back to my early childhood… back to a time when my hometown was more hay fields than housing developments, and just about the best thing in the whole wide world was riding with my mom in her ’56 Ford pickup, watching the sundogs pivot off the curve of the truck’s enormous windshield as we carried a midday snack of Fanta red-cream soda and raspberry Zingers to my dad…

Although I tend to think of music videos not really existing prior to the advent of MTV in 1981, there is a ’70s-vintage video for “Rhinestone Cowboy.” It’s pretty simplistic compared to what the rock artists would be doing less than a decade later, but its visuals evoke the feeling of my childhood memories as strongly as the notes of the song itself do. That road that Glen is walking alongside could easily have been one of the ones my mom and I drove down in her ’56, and the way he’s dressed reminds me of my dad and my Uncle Louie when they were young and strong.

After all the crazy headlines of this past week, I really like the idea of going back to 1975, if only for three minutes and ten seconds. As for Glen Campbell’s passing, well… he’s free now to walk any street and sing his song forever. I’m glad he’s at peace after his long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease.

 

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Fire and Fury Like the World Has Never Seen

After the Berlin Wall fell and the old Soviet Union disintegrated, I thought I’d never again feel as nervous about the likelihood of nuclear war as I did during my teenage years in the 1980s.

As with so many other things I believed in my twenties, I was wrong.

Relevant link.

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Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

Running with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the TopRunning with the Devil: Managing Van Halen Straight to the Top by Noel Monk
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Noel E. Monk managed the rock band Van Halen from its breakthrough in 1978 to the end of its first incarnation in 1985, when lead singer David Lee Roth left for a solo career and Monk himself was fired. Prohibited from publicly telling his side of things for many years, Monk is finally free to dish the gossip, and the result is this quick-reading memoir with the apropos subtitle “A Backstage Pass to the Wild Times, Loud Rock, and the Down and Dirty Truth Behind the Making of Van Halen.” (I don’t know why Goodreads claims the subtitle is something else. )

There are enough gossipy tidbits here to appeal to prurient interest, but if you’re a VH fan (or even just a fan of rock music in general), none of that will surprise you. Promiscuous sex, drugs and booze, trashed hotel rooms, and dickish behavior are hardly unique to this particular band. The basic outline of their rise and fall will seem familiar too: hard-working and talented young musicians break through, rise to immense heights, and then are undone by substance abuse and clashing egos. The thing that really distinguishes this book, however, is Monk himself. He’s led quite a swashbuckling life, before and after Van Halen, and he’s by turns funny, opinionated, and brutally honest. He doesn’t shy away from the really nasty aspects of the Van Halen story — Alex Van Halen comes off looking especially bad, in my opinion — but this isn’t a hit piece, and Monk never sounds like a guy with an ax to grind. He very obviously loved this band and loved the time he spent with them. But they weren’t always easy to deal with and the way things ultimately end up between the members of Van Halen and Noel Monk are downright heartbreaking.

My one complaint with Runnin’ with the Devil is that it leaves the reader hanging on certain matters. It is to Monk’s credit that he stops talking about Van Halen at the moment his involvement ended, rather than speculating on events he didn’t directly witness. But of course the band did continue in a new form, with Sammy Hagar as lead singer (Monk doesn’t think too highly of that era, or of David Lee Roth’s solo efforts), and there were a lot of unresolved personal matters at the time of Monk’s departure as well. What happened with Eddie and Alex’s alcoholism? And Michael Anthony’s as well? If you’re curious about those subjects, you’ll have to find another book. But if you want a powerful evocation of life on the road for a young band just arriving on the scene, as well as a behind-the-scenes glimpse of how things went wrong in only a few short years, this one is highly recommended.

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The Archeology of Our Modern Mythology

Being a Star Wars fan was different 25 years ago. Before the Special Editions. Before the prequels. And of course long before Disneyfication made a steady flow of new Star Wars movies not only possible, but inescapable. Way back in the mid-1990s, there was actual scarcity associated with the franchise. We had the first new novels and comic-book miniseries that would grow into the Expanded Universe, and Hasbro had tentatively introduced a new line of toys. But the red beating heart of the franchise, the movies — and remember, at that point, there were only three movies, the original trilogy, the Holy Trilogy — had happened a very long time before. In a very real sense, they felt like ancient history. So how appropriate was it that an archeologist named David West Reynolds chose to treat them as ancient history and go to Tunisia in search of the real-world locations that had once stood in for the fictional world of Tatooine?

I remember reading West’s article in the old Star Wars Insider magazine and feeling the same sense of wonder I might have experienced if he’d been talking about the ruins of Troy. I’d always known that those places really existed somewhere on the globe, but no one had thought (as far as I knew) to actually go see them, and seeing his photos and reading his descriptions of how they appeared nearly 20 years after the shoot was fascinating for me.

As it happens, West didn’t just take still photographs during his expedition; he also shot hours of videotape. And now he’s shaping that video into a documentary for hardcore Star Wars fans to geek over. Naturally, he’s using Kickstarter to raise some money for post-production, and just as naturally, I’m quite excited about the whole idea. Here’s his pitch:

West actually met his initial funding goal weeks ago, but now in the final hours of the campaign, he’s hoping to raise enough extra money to allow him to include additional footage, motion-graphics maps, Star Wars-inspired graphics, and on-screen annotations, as well as original music and a professional polish on the audio and video. And when I say “final hours,” I’m not kidding; as of this writing, there are only about nine hours remaining. So I realize my post here is very last-minute and unlikely to attract much attention or help for West’s campaign, but as I said above, I’m excited about this project and would like to see it made as well as it possibly can be made, so I figure it’s worth a try. If you see this before morning, and if it sounds at all interesting to you — and if it doesn’t, what kind of Star Wars fan are you?! — jump on over to the Kickstarter page and have a look around, and then consider pledging a few bucks. It’s not just a time capsule of those sites before the tourists and the resurgence of Star Wars fandom altered them forever; it’s also a time capsule of a different period of Star Wars fandom.  One that I honestly think was a lot more fulfilling than our current era. But hey, that’s me, and we all know I’m just a grumpy old man these days.

Check out the campaign here.

 

 

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A Bit of Perspective from an Interesting Read

… our public religion is, in large measure, an invention of the modern era. The ceremonies and symbols that breathe life into the belief that we are “one nation under God” were not, as many Americans believe, created alongside the nation itself. Their parentage stems not from the founding fathers but from an era much closer to our own, the era of our own fathers and mothers, our grandfathers and grandmothers. This fact need not diminish their importance; fresh traditions can be more powerful than older ones adhered to out of habit. Nevertheless, we do violence to our past if we treat certain phrase — “one nation under God,” “In God We Trust” — as sacred texts handed down to us from the nation’s founding. Instead, we are better served if we understand these utterances for what they are: political slogans that not to the origins of our nation but to a specific point in its not-so-distant past.

— Kevin M. Kruse,
One Nation Under God: How Corporate America Invented Christian America

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Review: The Questor Tapes

The Questor Tapes
The Questor Tapes by D.C. Fontana
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In the years between the cancellation of the original Star Trek television series and the franchise-reviving feature Star Trek: The Motion Picture, Trek‘s creator Gene Roddenberry wrote and produced a number of made-for-TV pilot films that he hoped would lead to a new series and a regular gig for him. None of them sold, but they all at least made it to the airwaves and many are fondly remembered today. Probably the best of them (and the one I personally think would’ve been most interesting as an ongoing series) was The Questor Tapes, the story of a highly sophisticated android searching for its creator, a mysterious genius who’s gone missing. Along for the ride is a young engineer who was a protege of Questor’s creator and helped to assemble the android, and whose assistance Questor now requires to successfully navigate through society and those ever-confusing human emotions.

This novelization of the Questor film skillfully adapts an open-ended pilot into a satisfying stand-alone story. Some of the ideas in the story are overly familiar today, if not outright cliche’d, and Roddenberry’s, shall we say, outdated attitudes about sex and the human female are occasionally a bit jarring to modern eyes. (Every woman in the story has a smokin’ body and gets her wardrobe described in great detail, and the female character with the most prominent role is possibly a prostitute.) But if you keep in mind when this was written — 1974 — it’s a short and brisk read that’s perfect as disposable entertainment for a summer afternoon. Star Trek fans will find it particularly interesting because Questor is so clearly a forerunner of the Commander Data character from Star Trek: The Next Generation, which made its debut over a decade after Questor. Roddenberry wasn’t one to let go of a good idea…

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Thoughts on the Fourth of July, 2017

America is the promise of liberty and justice for all.

 

Sometimes we forget that promise. Sometimes we misunderstand it. Sometimes we even get stupid, because we have forgotten who we are supposed to be. We get scared, angry, desperate.

 

But when we stop, when we remember, when we recommit ourselves to our better selves, we rediscover not only our nation’s potential for greatness, but our own as well.

 

Our greatness comes from our ability to imagine better — to see America as a vision of a better future, for ourselves, for our children. America was built by men and women who took that journey step by step. Yes, mistakes were made, crimes were committed, horrific things were done, slavery, genocide, eco-catastrophe — because there were many different visions of a better future, [and] because greed and corruption tainted our commitments.

 

Some of us have learned better. Some of us have not. And those with the wisdom to see the potential for damage always run the risk of falling into despair.

 

But we’re still a young nation, still suffering from our own growing pains, still learning how to be a nation, with all the responsibilities that attend. As long as we the people can remember what the founding fathers promised — a commitment to justice — we will be okay.

 

And those who forget that commitment… History will have it’s say about them as well. They will be the examples of what not to do and who not to be.

 

Our job, as we approach America’s birthday, is to celebrate the possibilities that are still available — and recommit ourselves to create them as realities: a nation that works for ALL of us, with no one and nothing left out.”

David Gerrold

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“Renown?” Um, No

Okay, kids, it’s time for another fun-filled episode of Copy Editor Pet Peeves with your charmingly curmudgeonish host, me.

I was just reading an article on “bad movies that are fun to watch” (you know the type) and I saw this sentence referring to the iconic Patrick Swayze vehicle Road House:

“…let’s act like America is a country where club bouncers are revered and renown like celebrities…” [emphasis mine]

Um, no.

No, no, no, no.

NO.

The word is not “renown.” Not in this context, anyhow. I’ve been seeing this error a lot recently, almost as if it’s just suddenly and spontaneously become a thing, and it’s driving me nuts. For the record — and write this down, you will be graded — it’s “renowned” with an “-ed” at the end. RenownED.

“Renown” is a noun meaning “acclaim.” It’s something you possess or are given. If you are fortunate enough to have someone give you renown, then you are renowned, just as you are “acclaimed” when you receive acclaim. Simple, right? And yet people are blowing it all the time… even in a sentence where it’s preceded by the correct past participle “revered.” Didn’t it look strange to have one action-word ending in “-ed” but not the other?

Sigh. “Renowned,” not “renown.”

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Friday Evening Videos: “Tiny Dancer”

The following opinion might not sit well with some of my readers, but I’ve got to be honest: I don’t really care for Elton John.

I know, I know, he’s part of the classic-rock pantheon and all, but his music has never quite clicked with me. And a couple of his biggest hits are weapons-grade irritants as far as I’m concerned. “Crocodile Rock” is enough to make me want to murder a busload of nuns.

Ah, but then there’s”Tiny Dancer.” That track belongs to an entirely different category. Its sound is deceptively simple, and yet the song contains rich imagery and a multitude of emotions, some of which are paradoxically contradictory. “Tiny Dancer” is by turns wistful, nostalgic, joyous, sad, celebratory. I don’t think it’s too much of an exaggeration to suggest that the song is a reflection of life itself, all the ups and downs, all the beauties and disappointments, all encapsulated in six sublime minutes.

That amazing flexibility of tone is evident when you consider its two best-known uses in television and film: at the conclusion of the WKRP in Cincinnati episode “The Americanization of Ivan,” and in the marvelous scene aboard a rock band’s tour bus in Cameron Crowe’s semi-autobiographical masterpiece Almost Famous. Both scenes are bittersweet and heartbreaking in entirely different ways, and if you have any kind of soul at all, both are unforgettable.

Strangely, given how ubiquitous and well-known it is today, “Tiny Dancer” was not a hit when it was first released. Its long runtime and lack of a traditional pop hook both worked against it succeeding as a single; it reached only 41 on the U.S. charts, and it wasn’t released in the U.K. at all. But over the years, it’s become a staple of adult contemporary and classic rock radio, and it has a timeless quality that never seems to go out of style. You’d never guess it’s four-and-a-half decades old.

There had been some experiments with filmed promotional clips prior to the song’s release in 1972, but MTV was still a decade in the future, so no video as we understand the term was ever made for “Tiny Dancer.” Until now.

Just last month, a director named Max Welland won Elton John: The Cut, a video competition held in honor of Sir Elton’s 50-year writing partnership with lyricist Bernie Taupin, with his brilliant visual interpretation of “Tiny Dancer.” Filmed in Los Angeles, the video doesn’t have a plot per se, but comprises dreamy images of LA skies, traffic, and landscapes, and vignettes of interesting-looking people that invite us to imagine the stories behind the moments we’re sharing with them. Like the song itself, these vignettes encompass a number of emotions and, taken together, form nothing less than a celebration of life itself.

There are a lot of music videos I like. There aren’t many that move me. This is magnificent:

Oh, in case you’re wondering, yes, that is shock-rocker Marilyn Manson petting the snake. I have no idea what he’s doing in there, but… it fits.

Have a good weekend, everyone.

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