Monthly Archives: December 2016

Friday Evening Videos (New Year’s Eve Edition): “Don’t Stop Believin'”

Oh stop. I can feel your eyes rolling from all the way over here.

I’m very well aware that this song has as many detractors as fans, and that it and Journey in general are routinely derided as “soulless corporate rock” (whatever the hell that means). I don’t care, and I’m not interested in debating it. Not now, not on the final night of this year, above all others. From the deaths of Bowie, Prince, and Princess frickin’ Leia to that god-awful endless election (I think everyone, no matter which side you were on, can agree that the election was a shit-show of historic proportions), 2016 has left me most definitely not in the mood for a debate. About anything. Here, at the end of this annus horribilis, more than ever, I’m missing my youth and the boundless possibility it seemed to contain, the certainty I used to have that everything would just somehow turn out all right. I’m exhausted, and I’m testy.

If you don’t like “Don’t Stop Believin’,” well… that’s your concern, I guess, and there’s not a damn thing I can do about that. Personally, it’s always been one of my favorites, going back to the days when I listened to it from a cheap K-Tel collection on a beat-up portable cassette player while I read comic books in our haystack. Even before I had any real understanding of what the lyrics were about, I responded to the sound of the song in that ineffable, near-mystical way that you simply do with some pieces of music. I loved the piano opening and that dramatic rising guitar thing following the first verse, and the soaring vocals that are both easy to sing along with and entirely beyond the range of most normal humans. Now that I’m older, I love the goofy optimism at the core of the song’s lyrics.

I’ve read some counter-intuitive arguments that this is actually a depressing song, that the story told by the lyrics is one of people consoling themselves while on a tawdry and unsatisfying quest for love. Or at least for sex. I guess that’s one way to read it. It’s not mine. I see this song as an ode to the indomitable human tendency to keep trying, to keep reaching, to keep hoping, in spite of disappointment and even though time and the culture around us and the world itself just keeps moving indifferently forward. As we crawl from the smoking crater of 2016 into the uncertain landscape of 2017, that’s a message I need to hear.  Maybe you do too.

I’m not going to bother with the usual historical background on this one, other than noting that this performance is from 1981, the year the song itself was released.

Happy New Year, everyone.


Friday Evening Videos (Bonus Edition): “Father Christmas”

It’s a little after midnight as I write this, and outside the rain that’s been falling all day has finally turned to snow and the world  is growing quiet and indistinct. Anne went to bed several hours ago, leaving me alone with my thoughts.

Even though I’ve been relatively cheerful this holiday season — a nice change! — I find that I’m very tired tonight, emotionally worn out. I think we all agree that 2016 has been a real drag, and I think we’re all eager to see it finished. Also, I’m worried tonight… about Carrie Fisher, my beloved space princess who had a heart attack on an airplane yesterday even as I was watching the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One… and about my cat Evinrude, who’s not been feeling well today but can’t tell me what’s wrong. Fitting, then, that the song I’ve had running through my head for much of the day is Greg Lake’s “I Believe in Father Christmas.”

You may have heard that Lake died a couple weeks ago, on December 6, following a battle with cancer. I was rather pleased that many of the online remembrances of him used this song, rather than something he did with the prog-rock band he co-founded, Emerson, Lake and Palmer. “Father Christmas” is often remembered as one of ELP’s, but in reality, Greg wrote and recorded it as a solo project. It was released in 1975 and reached number two on the UK charts. I don’t know if it charted here, but I remember hearing it on my classic-rock radio station in high school, and thinking it was lovely. It’s got a melancholy, world-weary tone, but it ultimately ends on a hopeful note, which for me is a perfect holiday song.

The version of it I’m going to present tonight isn’t a video per se; it’s a recording of a live performance at St. Bride’s Church in the City of London, back in 2011. Lake and his fellow musicians are accompanied by the church choir; the guy playing flute is none other than Ian Anderson of the band Jethro Tull.

“I wish you a hopeful Christmas,
I wish you a brave new year…
All anguish, pain, and sadness
Leave your heart and let your road be clear.”

Merry Christmas, everyone.


Compartmentalizing the Star Wars Saga

[Ed. note: This entry was begun over a week ago, before I had seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Some of my thinking here is no longer strictly relevant — and of course all of it is self-absorbed navelgazing — but I’ve decided to finish and publish it anyhow.]

In the wake of my last entry, a friend of mine asked why people make such a big deal out of Star Wars movies instead of taking them for what they are, either enjoying them or not, and just moving on when you don’t. Well, those weren’t his exact words, but that was the gist of what he was asking. And by “people,” I’m pretty sure he meant “me.”

I didn’t have a good answer for him, and I told him so. I really don’t know why these movies affect me the way they do, both good and bad… why they’re so important to me that my unhappiness with a sequel made 40 years after the fact sent me into an emotional tailspin. I could say what I used to say back in my college days, back when my buddies were all leaving to serve their two-year Mormon missions and it seemed critical to have my own glib answer to questions of spirituality: that the original trilogy was the closest thing to religion I’ve ever known. (This was long before those folks in the UK turned “Jedi” into an official religious designation; I dropped the idea after that happened, because it no longer seemed very funny, or very true.) I could also tell you that I’d constructed so much of my identity around being a Star Wars fan — something I stubbornly clung to even during the years when half the planet was renouncing their affection for the franchise because the prequels disappointed them so badly —  that when I was finally confronted with a Star Wars film I didn’t like (but which, perversely, so many others did like), the cognitive dissonance was so severe it felt like part of me was being torn away in a cataclysmic event, like an iceberg calving off a glacier. I could tell you these things. But unless you have similar feelings, there’s no way I can really make you understand them. If movies are just movies to you, if Star Wars isn’t that big a deal to you, then I can’t explain why they’re more than that for me, or why I am so damn dramatic about it all.

So I didn’t have an answer to my friend’s question. Nevertheless, I’ve been thinking about the core of what he was asking: Why can’t I just shrug off The Force Awakens, or any other Star Wars movie that doesn’t work for me? (As an aside, why can’t the prequel haters get over their disillusionment, too?) And the thing I keep coming back to is… all the Star Wars novels and comic books I’ve read.

Consider: in the nearly 40 years since the original Star Wars film (I still have trouble thinking of it as “A New Hope”), there have been quite literally hundreds of published stories set in that galaxy far, far away… everything from the Marvel Comics series of the late 1970s and ’80s to Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (the very first spin-off novel), up through the explosion of comics and novels produced in the ’90s and early 2000s that came to be called the Expanded Universe. And that’s not counting the various video games, animated television shows, newspaper strips, and Force only knows what else. I’ve read quite a few of those stories (though not all, and probably not even a majority of them… hey, I do have other interests, and only so much time!) Some of them, the best of them, capture the feeling of the movies and the sound of the characters’ voices so perfectly that they feel like part of the movies themselves. Others are utterly terrible, both as novels and as Star Wars stories. Some of them feel as if they were written for another franchise entirely and just had the Star Wars character names plugged into them; you wonder if the authors of those have ever even seen a Star Wars movie. And honestly, the vast majority of these stories, like everything else in life, are simply mediocre. But the interesting thing is… I’ve never had any big emotional or psychological struggle with any of them. I enjoy the ones I enjoy, the better ones become “official” in my mind, or what the kids on Tumblr refer to as “headcanon,” and the others are quickly forgotten. No big deal. So what’s the difference when it comes to the movies?

Well, simply put, the movies are harder to dismiss because they feel more “real” to me. Partly that’s because it’s the way George Lucas wanted it. When the EU started getting too big in the ’90s and contradictions and retcons were becoming a problem, Uncle George (or at least his minions in the licensing division of Lucasfilm) let the word out that the movies were to be considered the primary canon, and everything else may or may not be “official” depending on what happened in future film projects. In other words, George wasn’t bound to follow or use any idea established in the EU materials. Disney has reinforced this notion by decanonizing everything published prior to its acquisition of Lucasfilm and rebranding it under the “Star Wars Legends” label. (Interestingly, a lot of ideas from the disavowed EU appeared in one form or another in The Force Awakens, and will probably creep into Rogue One too, so perhaps Disney’s motive was less about clearing the slate than justifying their exploitation of existing material.) All the new tie-in materials moving forward are to be considered canon and are part of the timeline, an idea that I have some problems with… more on that another time.

Anyhow, my point here, at long last, is that I’m increasingly thinking I need to do with Star Wars movies what I manage to do quite easily with the books and comics, and compartmentalize all of them in my mind. I’ve been doing it with the Star Trek franchise for years. I love the first four Trek films that featured the original TOS cast; those are the “real” ones for me. Moving on, I like parts of Star Treks V and VI, although overall I have issues with those films; they are not part of my personal canon, but I don’t refuse to watch them. I didn’t care much for any of the four films starring the Next Generation cast, and in fact I’ve only seen a couple of them once. I’ve mostly forgotten them at this point, and that’s just fine. Meanwhile, I think my feelings about the post-reboot JJ-Trek films are pretty widely known — they don’t exist in my world. And I’ve got to start doing the same with Star Wars movies, too. I must learn to do what my friend suggested in the conversation that started all this: like what I like and ignore the rest.

That might seem so obvious as to not even bear mentioning, let alone writing a thousand-word blog entry about. But to date, I haven’t done that with Star Wars. I haven’t been able to. Even though I concede the prequels had a lot of problems, I basically accepted them… because they were Star Wars movies, and that lent them a certain authenticity and gravity by default. But I never had any obligation to view them that way… and indeed, many people did not and chose to pretend they never happened. It’s obvious to me now that I’ve got to do what everybody else has been doing since The Phantom Menace. For my own sanity, I’ve got to start imagining every new Star Wars movie from this point forward as a sort of new Expanded Universe… just supplements to George Lucas’ original saga that I can pick and choose from at will.


Rogue One: I’m Not Feeling It


We’re only a couple days away from the opening of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which is the first of several planned “standalone” or “anthology” films that take place in the Star Wars universe, but are incidental to the mainline saga. In other words, this movie and the “Star Wars Stories” that will follow exist in parallel to the seven previous Star Wars movies, but are not “episodes” of the story being told in those other seven. The idea is to fill in the narrative gaps and expand on the universe we’ve seen in the numbered episodes… fleshing out backstories and exploring ideas that the episodes don’t have time to deal with. And of course, to keep Star Wars-branded product in the theaters (and the toy stores) each and every year for the foreseeable future, thus making a Death Star full of money for the new galactic overlords at Disney.

The movie is getting very positive advance reviews (including, reportedly, the approval of George Lucas himself, which may not matter to a lot of Star Wars fans, but it still matters to me), and many of my friends already have their tickets for showtimes this weekend. I, on the other hand…

I’ll be honest, I was more excited by the teaser trailer for Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 than by anything to do with Rogue One, and that freaks me out a little. I mean… it’s Star Wars, man! Star Wars! Those two words have provoked an almost Pavlovian response in me for pretty much my entire life, ever since I was a wee lad doodling TIE fighters in the margins of my school papers. I should be bouncing off the walls right now, vibrating with excitement for my imminent return to the galaxy far, far away, just as I was for last year’s entry, The Force Awakens, and for each of the prequels before that, and for Empire and Return of the Jedi thirty-some years ago. But… I’m just not.

To be fair, there are elements in the latest Rogue One trailer that I find intriguing. I like the glimpse of day-to-day life under Imperial domination (literally under it, as a star destroyer hovers in the sky, throwing its ominous shadow over the city). I like the fact that this story is about ordinary galactic citizens for a change, instead of crazy old wizards and magical bloodlines. And the scenes of messy, close-quarters urban fighting with a scout walker clomping through narrow alleyways are something we’ve never seen in a Star Wars movie, so there’s that. However — and I really can’t convey how much it pains me to say this — there’s nothing in any of the trailers that really makes my heart go zing.

Part of the problem is my lack of interest in the movie’s central premise. If you don’t know or haven’t figured it out from the trailers, Rogue One tells the story of the rebel spies mentioned in the opening of the original Star Wars film (I guess I’m finally going to have to give in and start referring to that one as Episode IV or A New Hope like everyone else does, for the sake of clarity). Now, I don’t know about anyone else, but I myself have never given a second thought to those guys or how they actually got their hands on the secret Death Star plans that Princess Leia was carrying at the beginning of the whole franchise. Not once. As I put it in a recent Facebook conversation, this movie aims to “explain a maguffin that no one has ever questioned or wondered about in any way.” Remember the midichlorians in The Phantom Menace, and how baffled, if not downright angry, everybody was that George Lucas felt it necessary to quantify something we’d always just accepted, i.e., the Force? The midichlorian thing was one scene. Rogue One is an entire movie built around the same kind of thinking. As my friend Kelly put it during that same Facebook discussion, “What if someone made a movie called Ugarte in which we see the Peter Lorre character from Casablanca meet up with the two couriers who have the letters of transit?” Has anyone ever desired such a film? I know I haven’t. It’s not that you couldn’t make a good movie from that bit of background; it’s that there really isn’t any need to.

I think Disney’s plans for an annual Star Wars release are also a factor in my indifferent mood. A new Star Wars movie used to be a major event — the release dates for the original trilogy, the Special Editions, and The Phantom Menace (although not so much the other two prequels, oddly) all stand out in my mind as significant temporal landmarks that I still tend to use when I’m navigating through my memories — and those events were years in the making. (Literally.) You had time for the anticipation to build. But Rogue One arriving so soon after Episode VII, and knowing that Episode VIII will be out only 12 months from now, and then another standalone only a year after that, and so on and so on, has already rendered the Star Wars franchise no big deal, the same way the Marvel superhero movies — which Disney also owns — are no big deal. Now, I love those Marvel flicks, but I don’t get especially excited about them or eagerly anticipate them. Frankly, I take them for granted. I know it doesn’t matter if any individual entry in the series is bad, or if I don’t get around to seeing it in a theater, because there’s always another one on the way (three of them, in fact, in 2017). We’re only two movies into the Disney era of Star Wars, and I’m already feeling the same way about this franchise, and that’s a drag.

Really, though, my biggest problem with Rogue One is the lingering hangover from last year’s Star Wars film.

This entry is already running long, so I’ll spare my Loyal Readers a laundry list of all the specific issues I had with The Force Awakens. Let’s just say that I didn’t think it was a very good movie, I don’t think it continued the saga in a good way, and it ultimately did something no other Star Wars movie has ever done: It made me feel old and out of touch and sad. In fact — and I know this is going to sound ridiculous and overly dramatic, but it’s true — I’ve been struggling against depression for most of the past year, never entirely falling into The Pit, but always conscious of a black shadow lurking just at the edges of my peripheral vision. And while there have been a lot of contributing factors, everything from Prince and Bowie dying to the election, I’m pretty sure the triggering event was that damned movie. After 15 years, I finally understand the intense reaction so many people had to the prequel trilogy: disapproval, disillusionment, and a nagging sense of having been played for a fool that gradually festers into genuine anger about the whole damn thing.

Honestly, I’ve spent the last year wondering if I’m done with Star Wars. Moving forward, I mean. Nothing is ever going to take the original trilogy away from me. I’ve always said the “raped my childhood” stuff we used to hear in response to the prequels was asinine, overblown pearl-clutching, and I still feel that way. I truly don’t want to become one of those fans. And I know that I’m already dangerously close to sounding like Grampa Simpson bitching that everything’s gone to hell because the Damn Kids aren’t doing things the way we did ’em back in my day. But I’m no longer sure that Star Wars has much to say to me… or, for that matter, is even interested in speaking to me in the post-Lucas era. And that has been — and continues to be — very, very difficult for me to wrap my head around. Frankly, it’s been pretty painful. Like losing one’s faith in religion, I imagine. I hold out some flicker of hope that Rogue One might redeem the franchise for me (although next year’s Episode VIII will be the true make-or-break point). But I don’t feel much urgency to find out. I fear the emotions I’ll go through if it’s also a disappointment, I guess.

Oh, I will see it…. eventually. But I know I’ll be walking into the theater with a sense of wariness when I do…
















Friday Evening Videos: “Ride ‘Em On Down”

So, just last week, the oldest bad boys in rock, The Rolling Stones, released their 25th American studio album, a collection of cover songs called Blue & Lonesome. My understanding is that the tracks — all old blues standards of the sort that originally inspired the band when they first formed some 50 years ago — were recorded in just three days with no overdubs and no production trickery. What you hear on the record is what they played in the studio. I’m only a casual Stones fan, myself, but I think it’s a great set, raw and vital, and dripping with — if you’ll forgive the cliche — authenticity.

Along with the album comes a fun music video, which wisely does not feature the leathery faces of the septuagenarian rockers but instead focuses on the primary elements of what rock and roll is traditionally all about: sex and freedom, with an undercurrent of danger. (Also, in this case, some weird, possibly post-apocalyptic thing. You’ll see what I mean.)

Like a lot of classic blues tunes, “Ride ‘Em On Down” has been interpreted many times by many artists. The best-known version was by Eddie Taylor in 1955, but the earliest one dates to 1937, when the Delta blues guitarist Bukka White recorded it under the title “Shake ‘Em On Down.” According to Wikipedia, at least eight other versions have followed over the years, including one by the Black Crowes, and Led Zeppelin recorded two songs that had similar lyrics. And now of course, the Stones have put their spin on it.

As for the video, the girl behind the wheel is the actress Kristen Stewart from the Twilight movies, and the car is a really slick ’68 Mustang. I have no idea why the streets of LA are deserted, or why there’s some scruffy Walking Dead refugee driving a cop car in search of gas, or why there’s a random zebra roaming around… but hey, when did music videos ever make any sense?

In any event, check out Blue & Lonesome. it’s well worth a listen if you like either the Stones or the blues, or if you’re just looking for some real music…


Facts Are Stubborn Things

“Facts are stubborn things and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

— John Adams, 1770