Friday Evening Videos: “September Gurls”

And suddenly it’s September, Labor Day weekend, which in my mind always marks the end of summer, even if the calendar says we have another 22 days. Already the mornings are growing cooler, the kids have gone back to school, and the light has a different slant in the afternoons.

I’m so ambivalent about this time of year, i.e., September running through early November. I love the weather — there’s no finer time for top-down driving than Indian summer, in my book — and that quality of light I mentioned is like having golden hour all day long. But in counterpoint to the sense of well-being brought on by mellow afternoons and brisk nights, I always start feeling a vague restlessness around Labor Day, a sense that I ought to be… someplace else. I guess I’ve never entirely gotten over the routine of heading back to school myself, even though I’ve been done with college since 1992. There’s also a stab of melancholy in this emotional mixtape, no doubt brought on by my impending birthday and its reminder of mortality, the stark truth that we’re only given a finite number of summers and I’ve just burned off another one. At least I can say I accomplished something with this one, i.e., successfully pulling off my 30-year high school reunion.

This week’s song selection nicely captures my current bittersweet mood, and it even includes the name of our new month in the title: “September Gurls” by The Bangles. It wasn’t a hit for them, but it’s always been one of my favorite cuts from their album Different Light.

Although Susanna Hoffs would become the face and voice most people associate with The Bangles — something that generated a lot of friction within the group and ultimately led to their breakup in 1988 — singing duties were always evenly divided among all four Bangles on their albums. Bass player Michael Steele takes the lead on this track, a cover of a 1974 song by a power-pop group called Big Star, who are better known today for their influence on other musicians than for any of their own music. (It’s worth noting, however, that you probably do know a Big Star song, even if you don’t realize it. A reworked and drastically shortened version of their tune “In the Street” became the infectious theme song for the TV sitcom That ’70s Show; sadly, though, it wasn’t Big Star’s recording that you heard every week. The song was redone by Todd Griffin for the show’s first season, and then by Cheap Trick for the rest of its run.)

Michael Steele, originally known as Micki Steele during her brief tenure with The Runaways, appeared on three Bangles albums during the band’s peak years. When The Bangles reformed in 1998, Steele was the last holdout, and while she did write and record three songs for a new album, her contributions stood out as having a distinctly different tone and sound from the rest of the material. Various conflicts around the subject of touring followed, and she again parted ways with the other Bangles in 2005, leaving Hoffs and sisters Debbi and Vicki Peterson to continue working as a trio.

Since it was never released as a single, “September Gurls” never received a proper music video. This clip is from a concert the group gave at Syria Mosque Arena in Pittsburgh on December 13, 1986; the show was broadcast by MTV.

And with that… happy Labor Day, kids. Hope you can all enjoy a three-day weekend.

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Friday Evening Videos: “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)”

By the time I graduated from high school in the spring of 1987, I was beginning to disconnect from popular music. My tastes to that point had always been pretty solidly Top-40, with a general preference toward guitar-based rock sounds, but in the latter half of the ’80s, pop started to move in directions that I didn’t care to go, especially as hip-hop and rap became more mainstream. (Sorry, hip-hop fans, I’ve tried… ) I was evolving, too, of course, and would begin to explore harder rock and more historical stuff when I started college in the fall.

Nevertheless, there were some pop tunes that were still catching my fancy around that time. Listening to them now, I’m struck by how many of them have (to my ear, at least) a similar sound. I’m thinking of three in particular: “(I Just) Died In Your Arms Tonight” by Cutting Crew, “Something So Strong” by Crowded House, and this week’s selection, “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone)” by a Canadian band called Glass Tiger. I can’t put my finger on what exactly I’m hearing in these three tunes that sounds alike to me, or why exactly that sound appealed to me so much when I was 17 years old and more or less coasting on autopilot toward commencement. (Honestly, I was more preoccupied at that point with girls and immediate gratification than with anything to do with my future. Which probably explains a lot when I look at the course my life has taken.) But whatever that X factor was, I did love these tunes, and “Don’t Forget Me” in particular proved to be inspirational, as I remember writing that phrase in a lot of yearbooks.

With my 30-year reunion happening tomorrow — a reunion I somehow, improbably, ended up in charge of — I’ve been thinking about those final weeks of May and June, 1987, and of yearbooks and fine sunny days in my old 1970 Thunderbird, and of course the girl with whom I was besotted at the time. And naturally this silly song is playing in the background of all my reminiscences.

Glass Tiger formed in 1983 and lasted ten years before “going on hiatus,” as Wikipedia kindly describes it. In that time, they produced a number of singles that were hits north of the border, but only two of their songs made a splash in the U.S.: “Someday” and “Don’t Forget Me (When I’m Gone),” both from a 1986 album called The Thin Red Line. Of the two, “Don’t Forget Me” was the bigger success, reaching number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in October of ’86. I suspect a factor in its success was a backing vocal by Bryan Adams, who was still riding the popularity wave generated by his smash 1984 album Reckless and the subsequent world tour. You can hear his unmistakable voice chime in roughly two-thirds through “Don’t Forget Me.”

Interestingly, Glass Tiger shot two videos for this song; off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other bands that did that, unless it was an alternate live performance clip or something. The first video was made for the Canadian market, and I hope my Canadian friends will forgive me for saying there’s a good reason why it wasn’t more widely distributed. I usually shy away from describing any piece of vintage media as “cheesy,” but in this case there’s just no other word that quite describes it. The whole thing, with kids in day-Glo ’80s-wear pretending to play instruments and the members of Glass Tiger mugging their way through a faux wedding, plays like a fantasy sequence from an episode of Full House. All it needs is a guest appearance from John Stamos and the Olson Twins. (If morbid curiosity compels you, here’s a link to the Canadian version.)

The second video, the one made for international markets, can probably also be described as cheesy, considering it’s pretty much a grab-bag of ’80s music-video cliches. You’ve got mullet hair-dos, big shades, acid-washed jeans, baggy sport coats, one guy in a bolo tie and another in a quasi-military-style jacket, and of course the obligatory pinback button in the lead singer’s lapel. But believe it or not, this stuff was cool back in ’87. Yes, kids, it’s true… this really is how we dressed, or at least wanted to dress. The strangest thing about this clip is that Bryan Adams is nothing more than a disembodied voice; at least in the Canadian Full House pastiche, there was a kid (dressed in Adams’ then-tradmark denim) lip-syncing his part.

Glass Tiger reformed in 2003 and still plays occasional live gigs throughout Canada. And tomorrow afternoon, I’m going to see if writing this song’s title in everybody’s yearbook actually did the trick at keeping me in my classmates’ memories…

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Last-Minute Signal Boost: BHS Class of ’87 Reunion!

Now that the sun has returned and everyone has drifted back to the comforting, unchanging glow of their electronic devices, a message for any of my old classmates who may be reading this blog:

If by some chance you either haven’t heard about it or haven’t made up your mind about attending, we’re only days away from our 30-year reunion. Time to act! Details below… and I hope to see you all there!

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Friday Evening Videos: “Rhinestone Cowboy”

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

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

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

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

 

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Fire and Fury Like the World Has Never Seen

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

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

Relevant link.

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Review: Runnin’ with the Devil

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

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

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

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

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The Archeology of Our Modern Mythology

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

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

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

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

Check out the campaign here.

 

 

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A Bit of Perspective from an Interesting Read

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

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

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Review: The Questor Tapes

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

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

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

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