Monthly Archives: October 2014

Friday Evening Videos (Halloween Edition): “Crazy in the Night”

The gravel-voiced singer-songwriter Kim Carnes is best known for her monster number-one hit from 1981, “Bette Davis Eyes” (the biggest song of that year and, to my mind, one of the few genuinely timeless classics from that decade), as well as, to a lesser extent, her duet with Kenny Rogers from the year before, “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer.” But in honor of tonight being All Hallow’s Eve, I thought I’d share another song of hers that I’ve always quite liked, a little exercise in paranoia and afraid-of-the-dark anxiety (that also has a really catchy synth line) called “Crazy in the Night.” The first single from her 1985 album Barking at Airplanes, the song reached number 15 on the Billboard Hot 100, but was sadly the last time Kim would ever break the top 40.

I’ve got no particular memories or associations with this one, I just like it. Happy Halloween, everyone!


The Sounds of Halloween

When I was a kid, my dad always made big plans for Halloween. We had the paper skeletons in the windows and the jack-o-lanterns on the front porch, but he wanted to do something more impressive. Of course, this was the 1970s, long before there was a seasonal Halloween super store on every corner and Hollywood-style special-effects gadgets available to the public. If you wanted something more than, well, paper skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, you had to figure out how to make it yourself. Like the time a neighbor of ours turned his barn into a “haunted attraction,” or, as we called ’em back then, a spook alley. (Basically, he would lead neighborhood kids on a twisty path through the barn while older kids in rubber fright masks jumped out from behind farm equipment and hay bales to scare the little ones. It was pretty primitive compared to what you could do these days, but it was effective.)

Dad’s ideas weren’t quite so grandiose as that. He wasn’t the sort to try and organize a small army of young helpers; instead his ideas focused on things he could do by himself. For example, he used to talk about getting a refrigerator box from Mortensen’s Furniture Store, painting it to look like a coffin, and setting it up on the front porch, so he could “rise” for the trick-or-treaters. Then there was his idea to put together a Headless Horseman outfit and ride our ghostly white horse Thunder through the dark subdivision streets behind our house, just so he could be seen. Sadly, neither of those schemes ever went anywhere. Dad worked the afternoon shift back in those days  — 2 to 11 PM — so he often wasn’t around on Halloween night.

But one of his ideas that did come to fruition was to rig up a speaker in the front-room window and play a record of spooky sound effects to set the mood for trick-or-treaters as they approached the house. As I recall, the record included the usual Halloween-ish fare like rattling chains, moans, and creaking doors, and also since this was in the post-Star Wars late ’70s, there were some “spacey” sounds like flying saucers landing and rayguns zapping. And somewhat incongruously, there was the sound of a giant gong ringing. I myself never found that to be especially frightening — I associated it with the old movies I saw on TV, actually — but based on the reaction of one small child, at least, I may have been wrong about that.

I remember sitting on the couch the Halloween we played that record, looking out the window as the kid timidly mounted the front steps of our house. His mother waited back on the sidewalk for him, and thinking about it with an adult’s perspective, I realize this was probably a big night for him… the first time he’d had the courage to venture out on his own a bit, perhaps the first time his mom had loosened the apron strings enough to let him do it. The kid had to stand on his tippytoes and stretch out his index finger to reach the doorbell… and by coincidence, just at the instant he pressed the button, that gong crashed out of the speaker and rolled into the night. The kid seemed to contract into himself like an accordion as he pivoted on one foot and ran screaming back to his mother. My own mother opened the front door and tried to lure him back for his candy, but the kid was too traumatized to set foot anywhere beyond the edge of our front lawn. I didn’t know whether to laugh or feel sorry for him. And now, over 30 years later, I really hope our inadvertent prank didn’t set back his development somehow.

You know, it’s odd… as many childhood relics as I can easily lay my hands on, I have no idea whatever happened to that record. I imagine my mom has it tucked away some place, or at least I hope she does. Because I really did love it. Not for the sound effects, fun though they were. But they were only one side of the LP. No, what I really loved was the ghost story on the other side of the album, which was like an old-time radio show with actors and sound effects painting creepy, hair-raising pictures in our minds. I must’ve listened to that side of the album a thousand times, even well after the month of October was over, giving myself a good case of the creeps in the middle of the summertime.

I don’t know what made me think of that record earlier this week. It’s probably been decades since I’ve seen or heard it. But some confluence of the decorations around the house or the movies I’ve been watching to get in the seasonal mood, or perhaps just the slanting, guttering light and fragile warmth of an October day… something jarred loose an old memory. And so, without even recalling the title of this ancient piece of ephemera, I started googling… and as ever, I found myself utterly amazed by what you can find out there in the back alleys and hole-in-the-wall curiosity shoppes that comprise the InterWebs.

It turns out I’m not the only one with fond memories of this record, as it was ridiculously easy to track down. It was called Halloween Horrors: The Sounds of Halloween (and Other Useful Effects), released in 1977 by A&M Records, serial number SP-3152, with cover art by a guy named Gary Meyer. And here it is:

Halloween Horrors_LP_front-cover

And here’s the back cover:

Halloween Horrors_LP_back-cover

I even found a version without the credits, so you can appreciate that fantastic illustration:

Halloween Horrors_LP_back-cover-no-credits

Isn’t that great? I love this album’s artwork, and I now recall spending a lot of time studying it as a boy. These illustrations are, to me, the very essence of Halloween: not the intense, deeply disturbing stuff that haunted attractions and horror films have turned into, but more the decrepit-house-on-the-hill Gothic sort of thing.

And now, here’s the most unexpected find of all, the piece de resistance… the actual story from the album, digitized and YouTubed for our modern convenience:

Children of the ’80s ought to pay especially close attention as they listen to that. Does the voice of the gas station attendant sound familiar? It should… that’s Peter Cullen, who played Optimus Prime in the old Transformers cartoon and continues to bring life to that character in the Michael Bay films today! As I said, the things you can discover out there on the Web…


Friday Evening Videos (Special Monday Edition): “Rock and Roll”

Since I missed posting the customary video at the start of the weekend, how about we rev up the work week with this just-released official video for the mighty Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”?

In the immortal words of Rocket Raccoon, “Oh, yeah.”

Truthfully, I’m not the world’s biggest Zep fan — my affection for them is more on a “greatest hits” level, which is a bit of a misnomer since Zeppelin never actually had a charting single, at least not in the U.S., until the 1997 re-release of “Whole Lotta Love” — but some songs are simply timeless classics, and “Rock and Roll” is one of them. It doesn’t sound like a relic from 1972. It simply sounds like itself, like an entire genre encapsulated in three minutes and  42 seconds. And it makes me want to put the top down and drive way too fast, and that’s a feeling I never grow tired of..

Technically, the song in the video above is not the same one teenager rockers have been blasting from their car stereos for 42 years, though. This is an alternate mix — the guitars have been de-emphasized in favor of the drums — from the new Deluxe Edition of Zeppelin’s landmark fourth album (variously known as Zoso or Led Zeppelin IV), featuring remastered content, studio outtakes, and “additional companion audio,” whatever that may be. Either way, it’s good stuff.

And now that my heart is pumping, what should I do with my day?


Friday Evening Videos: “Night Moves”

This week’s FEV isn’t a music video in the usual sense; rather, it’s a clip from today’s episode of The Ellen DeGeneres Show in which the legendary rocker Bob Seger performs his classic hit “Night Moves.”

I had the Night Moves album on cassette when I was a teenager, and I have vibrant memories of listening to it on my old Walkman as I slouched in the back of my French classroom before the bell rang (I was a good kid and didn’t listen during class, but the interval in between classes? That was my time, Mr. Hand!) And even though there’s not a bum track on that album, this song, the title track, was always my favorite, the reason I’d bought the tape in the first place.

First and foremost, I’ve always responded somehow to the basic sonic quality of it: the acoustic guitar, the melody, the pause toward the end and the slow pickup that builds to a crescendo. Something about that sound just activates my nervous system in a pleasant way, I guess. And the lyrics have always spoken to me in personal ways, too. Back in high school, the bit about working on mysteries without any clues in the backseat of an old Chevy held a certain — how shall I say this? — aspirational appeal. Later on, I came to understand the melancholy heart of the tune. And now, as the years have piled on top of each other, the verse about waking in the middle of the night and the dramatic pause that follows have acquired an almost shocking degree of truth.

As for this particular performance, well, Seger’s getting old… and that lends the song even more poignancy than it already possessed. It’s no longer the song of a thirtysomething grappling with the specter of approaching middle age, but the reflection of a man who’s well into his own autumn. Give it a listen… and stay through the end to hear Ellen’s fond remembrance of the time Seger did something decent for her. He’s a good guy, old Bob… well, aside from his confounding refusal to ever come to Salt Lake when he’s on tour. What the hell, Bob?

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Got Our Boarding Passes!

If you haven’t heard, NASA recently awarded commercial contracts to two private companies, SpaceX and Boeing, to begin ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Assuming, of course, that their Dragon and CST-100 spacecraft, respectively, prove themselves safe for human occupants during the upcoming certification tests. But I don’t think anyone has much doubt that they will. The goal is for this “space taxi” service to begin within two years, by 2017.

This is a major deal for a couple of reasons. First, and perhaps most importantly, it will break the current U.S. reliance on the Russians to get our people into space, and given how shaky relations with Russia have been recently, the sooner we can do that, the better. But the other big thing is that, for the first time in the 50-some years since Yuri Gagarin’s historic flight, people will be going into orbit on spaceships designed, built, and operated by commercial entities rather than a government agency. (SpaceShipOne and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic tourism business don’t count, as they don’t go high enough to achieve orbit.) This is a major shift of paradigm, and potentially tantamount to the genuine opening of the Final Frontier.

However, that doesn’t mean NASA is getting out of the sending-humans-to-space business. While the commercial efforts (SpaceX’s Dragon, in particular) have drawn everyone’s attention in recent years, the agency has quietly continued development of its own next-generation spaceship, the Orion Crew Vehicle. And now Orion is about ready to make its debut, with an unmanned test flight scheduled for December 4. The capsule — which basically looks like a scaled-up version of the old Apollo command modules and is intended to carry astronauts deeper into space than ever before, possibly even to Mars — will be blasted into orbit aboard a Delta-IV heavy-lift booster rocket. It will circle the Earth twice, rising far above the space station’s altitude and passing twice through the Van Allen radiation belts, and then re-enter the atmosphere for a splashdown in the Pacific Ocean, all to confirm that the ship’s critical systems function as expected. (This is explained in more detail in a dramatic new video released by NASA last week.)

Now here’s the fun part: The venerable old space agency wants people to feel invested somehow in Orion, to give them a sense of participation in its flights, up to and including that trip to Mars, so it’s offering a chance for us all to ride along by proxy. Simply go to the “Send Your Name to Mars” website and register your name, country of origin, postal code, and an email address. The collected names will be encoded on a microchip that will travel aboard the Orion on this first flight as well as future missions. With each trip into the black, you’ll accrue “frequent flyer miles,” which I suspect will probably arrive in your inbox as part of a newsletter or something. Yeah, it’s a gimmick, and kind of a cheesy one at that, but I like it. I like the idea that some little part of me — even something as inconsequential as a few bits of data that represent the string of letters by which I identify myself — is going up there. I’ve done this before — my name and Anne’s are aboard the New Horizons probe that is now less than a year away from Pluto — and now my name and hers will be on Orion too. And just to prove it, here are our “boarding passes”:

I think you’ll probably be able to continue submitting names throughout the duration of the Orion program, however long that turns out to be, but if you want your name aboard the first test flight, you’ll need to register by Halloween, October 31.

Let the countdown commence!


My Dad on The Walking Dead

On most mornings these days, my dad wanders up to my place from the other side of the Bennion Compound, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand, and spends a few minutes chatting with me in the driveway before I leave for work. Today’s conversation was all about the TV show he’s recently discovered, The Walking Dead. Here’s his take on it:

“Yeah, so there’s these dead guys that come after you and the only way to stop ’em is to shoot ’em in the head… which doesn’t make any damn sense to me, because they’re already dead, right? How do you kill something that’s already dead? For that matter, why are they walking around if they’re dead, anyhow?”

He took a sip of his coffee, then chuckled.

“It’s pretty stupid, really.”

Good thing he’s not paid by the word for his reviews…


Looking for Something to Read, Revisited

Hey, folks, another little PSA on behalf of one of my friends:

My old college buddy Jaren Rencher just announced (with no small measure of well-deserved pride) that his short story “Hunger” has been accepted by the Utah Horror Writers for inclusion in their anthology Old Scratch and Owl Hoots: A Collection of Utah Horror. I read the story a couple weeks back and thought it was a wonderfully creepy piece that utilized familiar Old West story tropes for good effect, as well as playing very nicely off the reputation of one of Utah’s more notorious historical figures, Porter Rockwell, a.k.a. Brigham Young’s “Destroying Angel.”

If this sounds like it might be up your alley, the anthology is currently available for pre-order until October 31st at the suitably Halloween-ish price of $6.66 — half off the suggested retail price — with publication set for January 2015. I’ve already ordered my copy!

Incidentally, if anyone reading this is not from Utah and thus doesn’t know Porter Rockwell from porter beer, you ought to read up on him; he was a fascinating guy. One of my favorite anecdotes involving him is the time the Victorian explorer Richard Burton — another fascinating guy, no relation to the film actor who married Elizabeth Taylor multiple times — was camping in the Salt Lake Valley not far from where I grew up, and encountered Rockwell. These two supreme badasses knew each other by reputation, and spent the evening passing a jug of whiskey around the campfire and trading war stories. (In my imagination, they also compared scars, talked of women they’d had, and generally tried to out-macho each other.) This is all recounted in Burton’s book The City of the Saints, which is a thorough travelogue and ethnography of what was at that time — 1865 — an exotic and mysterious people, i.e., the Mormons.



Friday Evening Videos: “I’m on Fire”

In case you’ve forgotten (or never knew), Bruce Springsteen’s Born in the U.S.A. was an incredible powerhouse of an album. Not only did it mark a change toward a more commercial sound for The Boss, it generated a mind-boggling seven top-10 singles (out of 12 total tracks on the album) and kept Springsteen’s name on the Billboard Hot 100 for nearly two years, from May 1984 to March of 1986. It remains Bruce’s best-selling album, even though he’s one of the more prolific artists out there (he’s released 11 other records in the decades since Born in the U.S.A., up to and including this year’s High Hopes), and it is one of my personal favorites by any artist.

This week’s selection for Friday Evening Videos is a song called “I’m on Fire,” which was the fourth single from Born in the U.S.A. It was kind of an odd candidate for a single, in my opinion, but perhaps its quiet wistfulness was calculated to be a palate cleanser following the upbeat pop sound of “Dancing in the Dark,” the urgency of “Cover Me,” and the outraged social commentary of the album’s title track.

I don’t have any particular anecdote or memory connected to this song; it’s simply one I have always liked, especially in the wee hours when I’m the only one awake in the house and something deep inside me is crying out for something that I often can’t even name. Surely I’m wasn’t the only angsty young man back in the Awesome ’80s who thought the line about a knife, edgy and dull, cutting a six-inch valley through the middle of someone’s soul, was written specifically about him. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found my relationship to the song has changed, but if anything, that relationship has only grown deeper and richer. It speaks to me now of a much wider range of things I feel angsty about… and that damn knife cuts more deeply than ever during those long, dark hours between midnight and dawn.

One quick thought on the video: like the song, it’s simple and no-frills, and it, too, has long been a favorite of mine, largely because of the car Bruce is driving. That’s a 1956 Ford Thunderbird, if you don’t know your vintage steel. My dad has a red ’57, which he bought when I was in middle school. It was the first of our “collector fleet,” and is the only one I still feel nervous about driving…



Takin’ It Easy

The morning sun is in my eyes, a white glare risen not far above the lavender silhouettes of the Wasatch mountains. Every tree and telephone pole throws a slanting shadow across the road, and the farm stand at the top of the river bottoms is all gold and orange, dried corn stalks and pumpkins shining with dew. On the radio, The Eagles sing about a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and I have a sudden restless impulse to steer onto the southbound freeway ramp and just go.

But no. I can’t. I have places to be, and responsibilities, a commuter train to catch and a PowerPoint slide deck waiting to be proofread…


Quote of the Day

From a piece about the early ’90s TV series Twin Peaks, which is apparently going to be revisited soon on Showtime:

Nostalgia is never only nostalgia, but the raw, reflexive appetite for something we can no longer access.

I confess, I’m not entirely sure what the author means by the first clause of that sentence, “Nostalgia is never only nostalgia,” but I really like the language she comes up with to describe the phenomenon: “the raw, reflexive appetite for something we can no longer access.” That certainly sounds like my emotional experience. The word “reflexive,” in particular, is… enlightening.