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.

View all my reviews

spacer

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.

 

 

spacer

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

spacer
spacer

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…

View all my reviews

Save

spacer

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

spacer

“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.”

spacer

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.

spacer

Friday Evening Videos: “I’m No Angel”

When I was a young man, I went through a phase that I imagine a lot of young men experience, a time when I was desperately trying to be a bad boy. You know the type, the misunderstood outlaw with a sensitive side, just like James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause or, to reference something a bit more relevant to my generation, Bender in The Breakfast Club.

Of course, I wasn’t really bad at all (which, come to think of it, is probably true of most of the young men people believe to be bad boys). In fact, I was pretty goody-goody if I’m being honest about it. I never broke any laws, aside from occasionally speeding in my big old Ford Galaxie. I didn’t get into fights or vandalize things. I didn’t do drugs, and I never touched alcohol until my 21st birthday, if you can believe that. I went to my classes every day and I pulled mostly A grades, high school and college both. But growing up in strait-laced Utah, at least when I did it back in the ’80s, it wasn’t too hard to gain a reputation. Don’t go to church, listen to the wrong kinds of music, have a naughty sense of humor and an earthy vocabulary, wear your hair a little long in the back and cultivate some facial hair… oh, and of course, drive a big old Ford Galaxie. They had roomy back seats, you know. I was very well aware that fathers cringed when I arrived to pick up their daughters, and I loved that. In my mind’s eye, I was a heartbreaker, a dashing highwayman, a love-em-and-leave-em renegade with an irresistible smile and a mission to claim another sweet young thing before the night was over, a real scoundrel. I know at least one of the girls I dated saw right through all that nonsense — probably they all did — but their fathers didn’t, and more importantly… I didn’t. For a time, I really believed that’s who I was. And I liked that guy. I miss him sometimes, now that I’m old and settled.

Around that general time period, Gregg Allman, who was a notorious bad boy himself, released an album called I’m No Angel. Allman was legendary for his work with the Allman Brothers Band, a seminal Southern rock band of the 1970s, but his solo career had been far less successful, so it was a bit of a surprise when this new album’s title track — originally recorded by Bill Medley of The Righteous Brothers five years earlier — hit number one on the Billboard Mainstream Rock chart in the third week of March 1987. I was a senior in high school then, cruising the last couple months toward graduation day with all the credits I needed, and a lot more interest in immediate pleasures than trying to figure out my future. The bluesy-country sound of “I’m No Angel,” and lyrics that spoke of a man both dangerous and endearing, clicked perfectly with the image I was trying to cultivate, and I adopted the tune as my personal theme song for that long spring and the summer that followed. I remember singing it to that girl I mentioned, the one who saw through me, one hot and sunny afternoon in the roomy back seat of my Galaxie…

I don’t remember ever seeing the video for “I’m No Angel” back then. It’s pretty silly stuff, typical of late-80s MTV after the initial surge of excitement for the new medium had worn thin. I think Allman looks a bit embarrassed to be in it, and it’s telling that his official YouTube channel doesn’t include it (although there is a nifty live version of the song from 2015 that’s worth checking out). Nevertheless, I present it here as a memento of a time in my life that I still think about more often than I probably ought to at my age:

If you haven’t heard, Gregg Allman died a week ago at the age of 69. A friend of mine commented on Facebook that she’d once worked with him briefly. She didn’t get to know him well, but her impression was that he was “a really gentle soul interested in primarily two things: music and women.” Sounds a lot like that young highwayman I used to know. Rest in peace, Gregg.

spacer

Into the Great Wide Open

Photo by Anne Memmott, copyright 2017Just east of the Nevada/Utah border, there is a stretch of I-80 that runs in a perfectly straight line for a little over 50 miles. The freeway skirts the southern edge of the famous Bonneville Salt Flats, so the landscape around you is perfectly flat, and when atmospheric conditions are right, the mirages make it appear as if the road is hovering over a pan of perfectly still water. A range of mountains stands in the distance, and clouds tend to line up just in front of it, their shadows drifting across the foothills below in a constantly shifting patchwork of dark and light. Meanwhile, the sky above your car is perfectly clear and endlessly high, the tallest vaulted ceiling in the greatest cathedral in the universe.

The eastbound and westbound lanes are divided by several hundred feet, and traffic spreads out to a comfortable distance apart, making it feel as if you have the road more or less to yourself. Sometimes the only other vehicle in sight is an 18-wheeler so far ahead that it appears to be a man on a horse, or perhaps a camel like that scene in Lawrence of Arabia, a wavering smudge in the heat waves rising from the asphalt. The only other manmade object for miles around is the railroad track that parallels the interstate. There’s just nothing out there… no housing developments or strip malls, no Walmarts or fast-food chains or office parks or high-rise buildings… no oil rigs or cellphone towers… no fences, islands or barriers. No traffic lights or cross-street intersections to force you to brake and come to an unwanted halt. And no ugly billboards to clutter your mind with unsolicited marketing messages, at least not on that 50-mile stretch past the salt flats. It’s a no-bullshit zone where my jaw gradually unclenches and my breathing slows as I barrel along at 80 mph with the wind whistling all around my open convertible cabin.

It’s the best therapy I know.

Save

Save

Save

Save

spacer