In Memoriam

In Memoriam: Jerry Doyle

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Back in the mid-90s, just after I finished with college and was still struggling with the question of what I was supposed to do with my life, I spent a lot more time watching syndicated TV than I probably should have. Most of it was disposable junk that’s thankfully faded into the mists of my increasingly fuzzy memories. But there was, amidst all the low-budget, filmed-in-Vancouver cop shows, a couple series that stood out for me. Highlander was one. Another was a science-fiction epic set on a space station, a sort of intergalactic crossroads, a freeport where species of all descriptions could mingle, trade, and intrigue in relative peace, even as ancient cosmic powers manipulated events toward a war that would engulf them all.

No, I’m not talking about Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, although you’re forgiven for thinking so, considering the similarities between the two. I refer instead to Babylon 5, a show that always stood in the shadows of its higher-profile rival, much to the frustration of B5’s hardcore fans.

For the record, I wasn’t one of those people. Oh, I liked the show, as I already mentioned, and I remember thinking the parallels with DS9 were mighty fishy. (A full recounting of that is beyond the scope of this post, but briefly, there’s pretty good circumstantial evidence that the suits at Paramount ripped off B5’s creator, J. Michael Straczynski, who was shopping his concept around well before DS9 was ever thought of.) But I was, at best, a casual fan of B5. I didn’t watch faithfully every week. I watched it pretty often, though, often enough that when I recently sat down to view the series’ entire run, I found I remembered the overall story arc a lot better than I thought I would.

And I watched often enough that this morning’s news about the death of one of the show’s stars, Jerry Doyle, has hit me like a punch in the gut.

Doyle played Security Chief Michael Garibaldi, probably my favorite character among the large ensemble cast. Depicted as a blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy, Garibaldi loved Daffy Duck cartoons, formed unlikely friendships with alien diplomats, and once rebuilt an antique motorcycle and rode it up and down the corridors of the station (a 23rd century O’Neill cylinder). In a show populated by flawed human beings (and aliens with a lot of human flaws), Garibaldi was perhaps the most flawed of them all; he struggled with a failed marriage, booze, conflicted loyalties, and PTSD. And that was before an evil telepath messed around with his mind. And yet, he was a hero in the same quiet, stolid way that so many ordinary people are heroes: because he just kept getting up and going to work in the morning. A lot of viewers related to that; I know I did, during those aimless years when I was working the wrong jobs and trying to figure out where exactly everything had gone wrong for me.

In the years after Babylon 5, Jerry Doyle became the host of a talk-radio program that bore his name. His politics were… not mine. And yet every account of personal encounters with the man that I’ve seen today suggests it would’ve been a bigger problem for me than for him. On social media, his B5 castmates are expressing shock, grief, and far deeper pain than you might expect someone to feel for a man they briefly worked with 20 years ago. That says a lot, I think. And it suggests that an awful lot of Garibaldi’s character was in fact Doyle’s character too.

I never had the chance to meet Jerry Doyle at a convention, and I regret that. He was only 60 years old.

One final thought: I don’t know what it is about Babylon 5, but the show seems to be suffering from an unusually high rate of attrition. Doyle is the fifth member of the principal cast to pass away in recent years, following Richard Biggs (Dr. Franklin), Andreas Katsulas (G’Kar), Michael O’Hare (Commander Sinclair), and Jeff Conaway (Zack Allan). Granted, the show is 20 years old, but that’s not really all that long…

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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:

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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

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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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Friday Evening Videos: “Lucky Man”

The Moody Blues notwithstanding, I’ve never especially liked so-called “prog rock.” The self-conscious effort to make rock-and-roll more “artistic” has always struck me as misguided and inspired by a weird snobbish shame about the genre’s humble roots, and the music itself is, to my ear, pretentious, the songs overly long and frequently just plain weird. Pink Floyd, Yes, early Genesis before Phil Collins dragged that band in a more popular direction, much of Jethro Tull and The Alan Parsons Project… that stuff just leaves me cold. Or bored. To me, none of it has that swing, to borrow from another genre entirely. It doesn’t, well, rock.

Even so, most of those bands produced an occasional single that managed to get through to me. And in the case of Emerson, Lake and Palmer — more familiarly known as ELP and widely recognized as one of the pioneers of progressive rock — that song is “Lucky Man.”

The elegiac tale of a warrior-king who falls in battle, the song appealed to my college-age romanticism and budding senses of fatalism and tragedy. It was written by Greg Lake (the “Lake” in “Emerson, Lake and Palmer,” if you didn’t make the connection) when he was only 12 years old and made it onto the band’s self-titled debut album basically because they needed one more song to fill out the track list and didn’t have anything else. Released as a single in 1970, “Lucky Man” reached number 48 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the US, and a bit higher in Canada and Europe. It was re-released in 1973, performing slightly worse in the US (51 on the Hot 100) and considerably worse on the Canadian charts, but it’s since become a staple of classic-rock radio programming. It’s now acknowledged as one of the first rock songs to feature a solo played on a synthesizer, and is even credited by some with being the song that popularized the instrument’s use in that genre. Ironically for such a landmark bit of playing, Keith Emerson, who performed the solo, was apparently embarrassed by it. He thought he’d just been “jamming around” on his new toy, and didn’t think the take would be used on the finished recording.

Emerson died today at the age of 71. Some sources are reporting that the cause was a gunshot wound to the head, and that his death is being investigated as a suicide. If true, it’s an unspeakably sad ending for such a talented and successful man. I hope he’s found peace.

And now, by way of tribute, my favorite ELP tune, a song that’s perfect for the late hour and the only one of theirs I particularly like… “Lucky Man.”

A quick note on this video: obviously it’s an unofficial piece created by a fan. “Lucky Man” was recorded long before the music video became a common form, and the live recordings I found were all just Greg Lake performing the song alone on an acoustic guitar. I wanted the album version that featured Emerson’s playing, and this was the best version of that I could find. I have no idea who created it, but I thought it was pretty well done…

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The Meaning of Glenn Frey

I haven’t had time this week to write anything substantive about the latest celebrity death that’s hit me in the gut like a baseball bat, namely the passing on January 18th of Glenn Frey, who cofounded the seminal classic-rock band the Eagles.

I know, I know… The Dude hates the Eagles. And so do a lot of critics and music snobs and vinyl-loving hipsters. Whatever. A hell of a lot more people like them, based on their record sales and continuing presence on the airwaves after 40-odd years, and their music was a big part of my life’s soundtrack when I was growing up. Hell, it still is. So yeah, Frey’s death hurts. But it hurts in a different way than David Bowie’s did, at least for me. Whereas I mourned Bowie as the passing of a cultural institution, as well as a charming, multi-talented human being that I confess I didn’t respect nearly enough, the situation with Frey is more… metaphorical. Everything I’ve heard about Glenn Frey the man suggests I probably wouldn’t have liked him very much had I spent any time with him (unlike Bowie, who strikes me now in interview footage as very likable indeed). But Frey as a symbol is quite a different thing.

I think what I’m feeling about his death is very much what Marc Eliot is getting at in an article he contributed to CNN. (For the record, Eliot is the author of a book called To the Limit: The Untold Story of the Eagles, which I read a few years ago and which is largely to blame for my jaundiced view of Frey and his bandmate Don Henley. Neither of them came off very well in that telling of the band’s tumultuous history.) Eliot is addressing an older audience than myself, more the late-stage Baby Boomers than we Gen-Xers, but given the ubiquity of Eagles music throughout my own formative years in the ’80s, not to mention my own somewhat anachronistic worldview, I can certainly relate:

…despite the belief that rock ‘n’ roll will keep us forever young, the truth is it doesn’t age well on us. That’s the beauty and power of rock ‘n’ roll: It celebrates transient youth in the present tense. It’s what makes it both shimmery and precious. And it’s what makes the death of Glenn Frey so mournful.

What happened to him? That’s our first instinct, that’s what we want, we need to know. … But maybe what we really want to know is: What happened to us?

The passing of Glenn Frey reminds us all too well of the kids we were in the ’70s — our blue jeans and black boots, our long hair and ‘stashes and crushes on impossibly beautiful, unattainable girls, our nights spent cross-legged in front of turntables listening with great intent to the latest album of one of our heroes. We believed that somehow we could change the world by the force of our belief in the power of rock ‘n’ roll, but instead the world changed us.

When we mourn for Frey, are we mourning our lost selves and a time when we all thought we could live hard and stay free and surf and bike and run and jump and love and never lose because we were forever young?

To which I would reply, hell yes that’s what I’m mourning. In one way or another, to one degree or another, damn near every single day.

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In Memoriam: Alan Rickman

alan-rickman_collageOnly days after claiming the Goblin King, that bastard cancer strikes again: Alan Rickman, the well-known and prolific English actor with the magnificently urbane diction, has died at the age of 69. (Bowie was also 69… curious. Somehow, they didn’t strike me as being the same age, although I couldn’t have said which of them seemed older.)

There’s an entire generation of young people in mourning today because Rickman played Severus Snape, the greasy-haired, mean-spirited antagonist who turns out to be more than he initially seems, in the Harry Potter films. (Life lesson: people can be jerks without necessarily being evil, and people often do the right thing for reasons that are entirely their own.) We older film lovers, on the other hand, are more prone to think of him as Hans Gruber, the elegant but brutal leader of the bad guys in the first, best (and only, in my book) Die Hard film. Or as the wicked Sheriff of Nottingham, who so memorably threatens to remove someone’s spleen with a spoon — “because it will hurt more!” — in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. Or perhaps as Elliott Marston, the inhumane Australian rancher who hires Tom Selleck to exterminate aborigines in Quigley Down Under.

Rickman was a highly versatile actor who played all sorts of roles, of course. My friend Amber is very fond of his work in the 1995 film version of Austen’s Sense and Sensibility. Many other people have mentioned Galaxy Quest, the sci-fi comedy spoof of Star Trek fandom in which Rickman was a classically trained actor who’s been forever typecast as the alien “Dr. Lazarus,” the character he played in an old TV show, and has grown quite bitter about the whole thing. And I’ve also seen a lot of references to the ensemble romance Love Actually, a movie I’ve never found particularly memorable — nothing against it, it just failed to make much impression on me — but which has its partisans. However, he truly shone when he played the heavy; his erudite manners and magnificent phrasings elevated his villains far beyond mere thugs. A Rickman villain scares you with his intelligence, not his physical prowess or psychotic behavior. And he had a very special talent for sneering; nobody can do an expression of such pure, undiluted contempt as he could. Another friend of mine once described his sneer as “looking like he was balancing a small rat turd on his upper lip.” Disgusting, yes, but such a perfect description that it’s stayed with me for years. His villains were hissably bad, often surprisingly complex, and always insanely fun to watch. What a shame we’ll have no more of them.

Alan Rickman’s demise came as a shock because, like Bowie, he’d managed to keep news of his illness quiet, and also because — again like Bowie — he wasn’t all that old. He still had a lot of great, possibly even iconic parts ahead of him. And what a shame as well that the world has been deprived of a human being who was, reportedly, one of the truly great ones, a man of compassion who stood up for others and was a champion of fairness. He was one of those I hoped to meet someday on the comic-con circuit, and I regret never having that opportunity.

I don’t know if it’s even possible to cure all the seemingly infinite varieties of cancer, or if — as some cynics have suggested — President Obama’s pledge in the State of the Union address the other night to create a “moonshot project” to find a cure was simply intended to be an easy applause line. Maybe so; this is a cynical age we live in. But damn it, I think we ought to make the effort. To paraphrase Sean Connery’s line from the old movie Medicine Man, cancer is the plague of the 21st century, and it’s taken too damn many people. It’s long past time to put a stop to it…

Once again, credit for the excellent photo montage goes to my cousin K’lyn.

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In Memoriam: David Bowie

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I was still lazing in bed this morning, petting the cat and absent-mindedly delighting in the blue flickers of St. Elmo’s fire that danced between his fur and my fingers in the pre-dawn darkness, when Anne shouted to me from the bathroom.

“Holy shit! Bowie’s dead!”

What? I thought. That doesn’t make sense. I must not have heard her correctly.

“What did you say?!” I shouted back.

“I just read that Bowie died. Cancer!”

I sat straight up, sending my poor kitty scrambling off the bed. It couldn’t be! Surely this was one of those Internet hoaxes that go around from time to time? Alas, no. David Bowie has in fact died at the age of 69 after fighting cancer (and somehow keeping it out of the press) for the last year and a half. I wouldn’t say this news devastated me, but I have had a very somber day because of it.

The funny thing is, I wasn’t even much of a fan. I’ve more often respected his music than really enjoyed it. From the time I first became aware of him during the “Let’s Dance” era of the early ’80s, I was put off by the very things that his true fans seem to have responded to most, namely the otherworldly weirdness of both his vocal style and his chameleonic persona. He wasn’t my kind of rock-and-roll hero. And yet… I never actually disliked him. He was weird, yes, but even I couldn’t deny the man’s charisma and intelligence.

Over the years, as I’ve become more catholic in my tastes and come to understand the historical connections underlying the music I love, I’ve become fonder of David Bowie. I recently worked my way through a DVD compilation of the 1985 Live Aid concert, and I was frankly startled by his performance there, by how self-assured and just plain joyful he appeared to be on that stage. There is a special and yet very simple pleasure in watching a seasoned journeyman musician at the top of his or her game, no matter what genre he or she works in. How could I not have seen that back in ’85? (Answer: I was young and stupid.)

Bowie’s career spanned my entire lifetime. His seminal album Space Oddity — technically his second one, but the first to really attract any attention — was released in 1969, the year I was born. His final album hit the streets only days ago. He went through fallow periods during those 46 years, but always came roaring back at some point or another with a new album or film, a new sound, a new character. Ziggy Stardust, the Thin White Duke, Bowie the New Waver, Bowie the glam-rocker, Bowie the musical elder statesman. It felt as if he’d always been here — and always would be here — in one form or another, under one guise or another, and his passing seems to have jerked a tentpole out from everybody in my general age cohort, who just can’t wrap their heads around the idea that he’s not there any more. Seriously, I haven’t seen so many of my fellow Gen Xers sharing the same glum expression since Jim Henson died way back in 1990. And isn’t that interesting, considering they were connected through Henson’s film Labyrinth, a movie in which Bowie starred that failed on its first release but has since become something of a generational touchstone? I imagine there have been as many tears shed today for Jareth the Goblin King as for Ziggy, at least among we fortysomethings.

You have to admire an artist with that kind of reach, as well as one who found a way to keep doing the work he loved until literally just before his death. As his longtime producer Tony Visconti put it, even Bowie’s death was a work of art, delivered in the form of his final album, which Bowie evidently held onto until he knew his time was growing short. The album is, of course, a farewell to his fans and to the world that he never quite seemed to belong to. No, I wouldn’t exactly call myself a fan… but damn, I do have a lot of respect for the man.

One final thought: She didn’t want to take any credit for it, but I have to extend my thanks to my cousin K’lyn for creating the nifty photo collage at the top of this post. Nice work!

 

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In Memoriam: James Horner

james-hornerThe news started rippling out across social media last night before authorities had even confirmed the identity of the body: the Oscar-winning film composer James Horner was dead, killed in a plane crash.

I write about celebrity deaths all the time; it’s kind of become the schtick I’m known for, weirdly enough. I write about the ones that produce an emotional response in me, the ones I feel some degree of sorrow about. Some of them affect me more than others, especially if they’re sudden and/or unexpected. I’m positively numb over this one.

I’ve always had a few movie soundtracks in my music collection, going all the way back to the double-LP Empire Strikes Back album, but my interest in the genre really took off when I was working that notorious theater job in my early 20s, when I was immersed in the movie industry and exposed to film music constantly. Horner quickly became a favorite of mine, second only to the master, John Williams. He wasn’t always the most inventive of composers — he had a habit of reusing certain melodies and effects over and over, something I’m sure Kelly will address with more expertise than I can when gets around to writing about this — but he was a solid and prolific craftsman who turned out a lot of work that I love.

There’s not much else I can say right now. I don’t have any anecdotes about James Horner or his work, no personal recollections to speak of, beyond “I like his stuff.” And really, Horner’s music kind of says it all anyhow. So I’m going to take the easy way out and just share some of my favorite pieces with you, my Loyal Readers. I hope you’ll take the time to play the clips below, and that you’ll like what you hear. This music has, in a sense, been the soundtrack to my own life. Or at least a part of that soundtrack.

First up is a pulse-pounding track from Jim Cameron’s Aliens (1986), which accompanies the scene in which the Colonial Marines have made contact with the xenomorphs and are getting their asses handed to them; back aboard the armored personnel carrier, their inexperienced lieutenant is paralyzed with indecision, until Ripley finally takes matters into her own hands and seizes control of the APC and drives to the rescue. It’s some of the most adrenaline-triggering film music ever recorded, in my humble opinion:

If that sounds really familiar to you, it’s probably because it was became the standard “action-movie cue” used in countless trailers for several years during the ’90s. For an interesting exercise, compare it to “Surprise Attack” from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982). This is the moment when the Enterprise encounters another Federation starship, not realizing it’s under the command of the villainous Khan, who closes to point-blank range before opening fire on our unsuspecting heroes. You’ll hear a lot of similarities to the Aliens piece, including something I’ve never been able to identify but which sounds (to me) like someone rapping on a pipe with a drumstick, a sort of “ting ting” effect. But while Horner is guilty of relying on some of his favorite tricks on this one — the general sound goes back to Roger Corman’s Battle Beyond the Stars (1980), as far as I’ve been able to determine — he also introduces a nautical feel, suggesting the starships are two giant galleons exchanging broadsides under full sail. And he subtly incorporates a little flourish from the original Star Trek television series and a couple of callbacks to the cosmic weirdness that Jerry Goldsmith created for the previous installment, Star Trek: The Motion Picture, making this score, in many respects, the most “Star Trek-y” of them all:

For Glory, Edward Zwick’s 1989 film about the first African-American infantry unit to serve in the Union Army during the Civil War, Horner incorporates a vocal chorus and a generally softer tone. I’ve always found this track, from near the movie’s climax, especially moving. Its elegiac tone as the men of the 54th Massachusetts prepare for what they know is likely a suicide mission, followed by the rising pace of the martial drums as they begin their final charge, breaks my heart and brings tears to my eyes every time I hear it:

And finally, here’s the main title from what is probably my favorite James Horner score, The Rocketeer (1990). It’s beautiful, upbeat, optimistic, and it perfectly captures the feeling of leaving the ground. A couple weekends ago, Anne and I took her father for a ride on a historic B-17 Flying Fortress, and this was what I heard in my mind as the runaway started to roll past the gunport I was looking through, and then fell away as the big old bird slipped into the crystal-clear sky with more grace than you’d expect…

Although the selections I chose here are all 25 years old (or more, in the case of Khan), Horner was no has-been. He worked steadily from 1978 right up to the present moment, and no doubt had a lot left to do. Three films featuring scores by him are due out this year: Wolf Totem, The 33, and Southpaw. He was only 61.

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In Memoriam: Michael Blake

I just read over at SamuraiFrog’s place that Michael Blake, who wrote both the novel Dances with Wolves and the screenplay for its hugely successful film adaptation, passed away last week. I hadn’t heard, which, as long-time readers know, is kind of odd for me. I hear about all of them, usually.

I have to confess that the movie version is the one that made an impression on me, not Blake’s original novel. I remember reading the novel not long after the movie came out, but that’s about all I remember about it. The truth is, I don’t have very good retention for books anymore, and if I’m being honest, it’s always been movies and television that have had the greatest impact on me. That’s a pretty unsettling thing to admit after believing myself to be a literary person for much of my life… perhaps that’s something to explore in another entry someday.

Dances with Wolves the movie, though… it’s one of my all-time favorites. I know a backlash against it has developed in recent years, with serious movie buffs saying it unfairly took the Best Picture Oscar that’s should’ve gone to Scorsese’s Goodfellas, and anti-PC political types criticizing it for simplistically depicting all the white people except star Kevin Costner as loathsome and all the Indians as noble. (This is untrue if you’re paying actually paying attention to the film, by the way, but it’s not something I’m inclined to argue right now.) Whatever. The movie worked for me. It came out shortly after my 21st birthday, at a time when I was floundering a bit with the whole life thing. A bit more than I usually am, I mean. I was lonely and hurting from breaking up with a girl some time before, and I was longing to explore the world while trying to decide what college major to choose. I fancied myself a Byronic hero, battered by affairs of the heart, outwardly mysterious, closely guarding all these feelings that no one else had ever felt and no one could understand… especially no one of the opposite sex. (It’s not coincidental that my other favorite movie of 1990 was Darkman, about a horribly scarred man who hides in the shadows and ultimately tells his former love he can’t be with anybody ever again, that he’s just a monster now.) And then along comes this sprawling epic that simply looks beautiful, with a lush, melancholy John Barry score, a bittersweet ending, and a theme about the end of an era… it pushed a lot of buttons in my Romantic (in the classical sense) young heart. It still does now, 25 years later, in particular the reason Costner’s Lt. John Dunbar gives for wanting to be posted to the distant fort (“I want to see the frontier…before it’s gone”) and the final scene, in which the stoic Wind In His Hair shouts out in despair to the departing Dunbar that he will always be his friend… I actually got a little teary-eyed just thinking about that scene as I typed that. Guess I still have a Romantic heart.

The bottom line is that Dances with Wolves (the movie) appeared in my life at the right moment and it resonated for me and touched me in ways that are hard to articulate. Ways that make the film immune to criticism in my book. I recently spent a small fortune to obtain a BluRay from the UK of the original (superior) theatrical cut, because the experience I had in 1990 was that important to me. I owe Michael Blake my thanks for his part in creating that.

Blake was 69 years old. For more information about how he came to write the novel and the movie (hint: Kevin Costner played a big role in both) check out his New York Times obit.

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